The following is a guest post by photographer Camilo José Vergara and Helena Zinkham, Chief, Prints & Photographs Division.
Skyscrapers at the World Trade Center site have dominated the New York City skyline since the 1970s. Except for the gaping hole left by the September 11th terrorist attack in 2001, which destroyed the twin towers, killing nearly 3,000 people. A unique series of photographs created by Camilo Vergara over 45 years can deepen your understanding of the roles played by both the old and the new World Trade Centers. These soaring towers seem to orient a whole city, like the center of a compass.
Vergara wrote recently about the World Trade Centers, “My arrival in New York City—in 1970—coincided with the construction of the twin towers of the World Trade Center (WTC). I had grown up in the Chilean town of Rengo where the tallest building was the three-story post office, El Correo. I saw the soaring towers as a symbol of a new world emerging. From up close, they simultaneously attracted and repelled me: I saw them as a place of exclusion, where the contradictions of wealth and poverty were extreme. But from afar the buildings were transformed. They became a place where ordinary people could dream that the skyline was theirs.”
|Lower Manhattan, New York, view east from Exchange Place, Jersey City, New Jersey. Photos by Camilo J. Vergara.|
Today, the Library of Congress is the home for Vergara’s whole archive, because his detailed street-level and bird’s-eye view photos shed light on urban conditions in many American cities. He has successfully tracked change over time in inner city neighborhoods by re-photographing the same sites over decades. Our first acquisition of Vergara’s work, though, was in 2002, when we selected prints from his “Twin Towers Remembered” series. So it is especially fitting, as we approach the 15th anniversary of the terrorist attacks, to look again at his World Trade Center images from the West, South, East, and North, right up to the present day.
“The city moves on as the new World Trade Center Complex of super tall, glassy buildings reclaims the limelight,” said Vergara. “Opened in 2014, One World Trade Center, initially known as the Freedom Tower, now dominates. In the meantime, I continue to document the neighborhoods of New York and New Jersey and, with them, the evolving cityscape. On September 11th, you’ll find me in proximity to lower Manhattan to capture the Tribute of Light, the annual commemoration of the tragic events of September 11, 2001. On the Fourth of July, I photograph the fireworks as they burst behind this skyline. Somehow, the towers still rise from the water for me.”
Vergara’s intensive study of poor inner city environments has earned him both a MacArthur Foundation fellowship (2002) and the National Humanities Medal (2013). But the complex symbolism of the World Trade Center towers continues to attract his attention. While he concentrated on poor, minority neighborhoods, the towers were often visible on the distant Manhattan skyline, like a city on a hill.
In Vergara’s own words, “I photographed the WTC from all the points of the compass, observing the wonderful space between the towers that seemed to narrow or widen as one moved along. Ironically, the farther one moved away from them, the simpler and more dominant the towers became. From New Jersey, or from an array of ferry boats, I often photographed the southern tip of the island. The buildings were reflected on the water, or sometimes in winter, on ice. Clouds were reflected on their surfaces. I photographed them from high rise, public-housing projects in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx. I took pictures that showed struggling neighborhoods, gritty railroad yards, and lonely vacant lots in the foreground and a fading skyline rising above.”
|LOOKING EAST from New Jersey
Lower Manhattan, New York, view east from Exchange Place, Jersey City, New Jersey [view photos]
|LOOKING NORTH from the Upper Bay of New York
Manhattan skyline, New York, from the Staten Island Ferry [view photos]
|LOOKING WEST from Brooklyn
|LOOKING SOUTH from the Bronx
Bronx, New York, view south from Hunts Point [view photo]
The online collection will continue to grow, including more views that show the World Trade Center in relation to city neighborhoods in the 1970s. Please check back!
You can meet Camilo Vergara in person when he speaks at the Library of Congress about Tracking Time: Twin Towers and Motor City: Tuesday, November 1, noon – 1pm, followed by book signing. (Location: Library of Congress, James Madison Building, Mary Pickford Theater (3rd floor), 101 Independence Ave., Washington, D.C. 20540)
- Explore Camilo J. Vergara’s photographic archive at the Library of Congress
- Visit other September 11th commemorations by Vergara:
- See more pictures of the World Trade Center at the Library of Congress:
- Browse more pictures about the September 11th terrorist attack:
- Delve into the multi-format collections built by Library staff to document September 11th, through the Witness and Response online exhibition and a special issue of the Library of Congress Information Bulletin (September 2002).