For more than 40 years, Camilo José Vergara has been shooting Lower Manhattan. As a young photographer who came to New York in 1970, the construction of the World Trade Center proved irresistible to the artist.
“On the one hand, the city was falling part,” Vergara says. “It was the pits in ‘75. But the Trade Center was the other side of it.”
Photos by Vergara, which are now on view at the National Building Museum, show New York City as it was and as it is. Of his many photos of Brooklyn, the Bronx, Harlem, Manhattan, and even New Jersey, the one constant throughout all his photos has been the World Trade Center—until the attacks of September 11, 2001.
Now, 15 years after the destruction of the Twin Towers, Vergara’s photos register the change in tone to New York’s iconic skyline.
“The Twin Towers were lopsided, particularly where you saw them from the south,” Vergara says. “Some people used to say that the most beautiful thing about the Twin Towers was the space between the Twin Towers.”
Vergara’s show at the NBM features photos that belong to both the New York Historical Society and the Library of Congress. When he first came to New York, Vergara says, he was interested in the towers themselves. “At that time, people believed in progress,” he says—and the Twin Towers represented faith in a better New York. “Today, we’re mistrustful of anyone who comes with the idea of progress.”
After a stint in graduate school, he returned to photography, but he no longer afforded Lower Manhattan a central place in his work. Instead, he shot the neighborhoods—Brooklyn, the Bronx, Harlem—often working from building rooftops. Eventually, he noticed that the World Trade Center was ubiquitous in this work, too. The Twin Towers often served as compositional anchors in his photographs.
The towers, he says, were not handsome buildings up close. But from far off, from Harlem or Brooklyn, they loomed like primitive shapes over the skyline.
“There was something magical about them,” Vergara says. “It was so odd! Two rectangles that grew so tall. You thought, well, they must have some religious meaning. They picked up the light. Sometimes they looked completely transparent.”
After 9/11, Vergara was drawn back to shooting Lower Manhattan—to try to describe and understand the absence of New York City’s most important architectural elements. His photos since then have tried to make sense of the World Trade Center area in the wake of the attacks. Whereas the Minoru Yamasaki–designed towers promised progress at a time of deep depression in New York, the tower by David Childs can’t quite fill the psychological gap.
Perhaps the World Trade Center no longer holds the same significance for the city, or more specifically for Lower Manhattan. “Frank Gehry has built there. Robert Stern has built there,” Vergara says. “There are seven buildings coming there in the complex. It’s much more dense now.”
Vergara’s perspectives from across New York (and from Exchange Place in New Jersey) capture something unique about all those neighborhoods, even as they center on one architectural fixture: the World Trade Center. The meaning of that site has changed; so, too, have all of New York’s neighborhoods. Still, Vergara says, the story of the many disappointments that defined how the new World Trade Center came to be has already begun to fade—its primacy in New York’s many different skylines is still the structure’s most salient feature.
“Crooks, politicians, some unsavory characters, maybe some better people, they become a pantheon—the builders, the people who made the World Trade Center,” Vergara says. “They all disappear when you look at the skyline.”