Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Vergara exhibition at the New-York Historical Society

Urban Landscaped readers know that I'm a fan of Camilo José Vergara's photographs and books. Vergara has a distinct viewpoint blending UE photography, sociology, and street photography, and he's author of two of my favorite books American Ruins and Unexpected Chicagoland. But his work hasn't been shown on museum walls for a good couple of years in NYC; I missed that party in the late 1990s and early millennium.

Harlem 1970-2009: Photographs by Camilo José Vergara was up at the New-York Historical Society through last Saturday, July 11th. I saw the show on its last day, or I would've posted earlier.

I had incorrectly assumed that Harlem, 1970-2009 would primarily consist of Vergara's "storefront" series, ie: his shots of the same storefront over a period of time (ie: 2038 5th Avenue 1992, 1996, 1999, 2005). I really like this series and saw him talk about it once over a private lunch gathering at The New York Public Library (and I received a place mat of the above series as a souvenir!). But a lot of this work is available on Vergara's Invincible Cities website, and I wasn't chomping at the bit to see it on the wall.

Instead, Harlem, 1970-2009 demonstrated Vergara's mix of photography with a wide variety of styles and subject matter. (Looking at the dates of the work, it also seems that Vergara might've shot quite a bit specifically for the show.) Storefronts, as the section was called, was a small part of the exhibition and consisted of only six groupings (one of which is reproduced on my place mat). Other sections were titled Transformations, Heart of Harlem, Religion, Landmarks and Benchmarks, Graphics, and Obama. If anything, Vergara tried to cover too much territory, covering forty years of Harlem in the one hundred photos on display.

Street photography started the exhibition in a rather calm, understated way. Thankfully, it was assumed that "Harlem" was a known entity; no paragraphs based on the historical migration of people to its area. Storefronts warmed the viewer up to representation through inanimate objects and landscape. Transformations, my favorite section, followed. Transformations consisted of diptychs and triptychs, mainly slightly aerial, of specific intersections , ie: Frederick Douglass Boulevard between West 134th and West 135th Street (1993 and 2008) and Frederick Douglass and West 143rd Street (1988, 2001, and 2007). Parking lots and independent fish markets give way to office buildings with ground level Duane Reade and Chase Bank locations. It's a zoomed-out version of Storefronts and Vergara's answer to Mark Klett's Rephotographic Survey Project from the late 1970s. (I'm not even close to tiring of rephotography.)

The only weak link in this section was the confusing diptych of Untitled (Harlem Welcomes President Clinton), 2001 and Untitled (Marathon), 2008. While Vergara often doesn't rephotograph in a precise manner (he doesn't take out the GPS like Klett does), these two locales seemed disparate and needed additional information for the viewer. Does this duo convey a divestment of Harlem because the 2008 photo has a boarded-up building in the foreground? I don't know. But I bet that Vergara, who holds an M.A. in Sociology from Columbia, had ideas about this.

Graphics featured murals (not graffiti, which has been featured in many shows recently) and was interesting. But fascinating was Vergara's narrative, in words, accompanying the images. In just a few sentences, Vergara dissected Harlem's mural trends from the last 40 years: 1970s murals were "angrily condemning racism and slavery"; "depictions of deceased drug dealers and their victims were popular" in the 1980s and 1990s. "Today the facades of buildings in Harlem advertise such products as gin, beer, Old Navy clothing, BMW sport cars, sneakers, black TV shows or schools, and rappers." Vergara's conversation with a building superintendent is summarized on a label accompanying a photo of a MLK mural located behind garbage cans (Coincidentally,the two men talked on MLK Day). A recent ad for 50 Cent's Formula 50 water is accompanied by labels claiming that 50 Cent and P Diddy are Harlem's current figureheads.

The Religion section of the exhibition featured photos taken from 2007 through 2009; there were photographs of churches and people (in their Sunday finest). Vergara has done the church beat before (see How the Other Half Worships). "Although there are over 300 congregations in Harlem today, many of the smaller ones have closed or moved, and Harlem is no longer an incubator of struggling churches."

The photographs in Landmarks and Benchmarks were not my favorite of Vergara's work, but there were a lot of interesting Harlem factoids. Do you know what "Koch" windows are? Isn't the Mount Morris Fire Watchtower an interesting structure? Why has the building that housed the Renaissance Ballroom and Casino stayed shuttered since 1979? The photographic highlight was the cross formation of "security" photos, but stylistically, they were very different than the Vergara photos we know, and it was a bit of a turn-off.

The Obama and Sculpture sections were interesting, but the exhibition would not have lacked in their absence. The Heart of Harlem photographs were displayed in the center of the space and were nice street photography shots of electic Harlem residents.

Harlem, 1970-2009: Photographs by Camilo José Vergara displayed a broader style of Vergara's photography; in and of itself, this made the show thought-provoking. Aesthetically, it seemed a bit like a Vergara retrospective (without American Ruins, that is) with the cohesive subject matter of Harlem creating the bonds between different types of photographic works.

While I was in the exhibition space, a group of approximately a dozen sightseers entered the space; most were in their 20's, but a few were older. After about ten minutes of looking at photographs on one side of the room, the tour guide/leader of the group asked the then-seated-and-ignoring-the-show group "What do you want to do?" Several voices responded quickly: "Shopping!" The tour guide was disappointed. "Really?" he asked. After several minutes of conversation about future plans, one 20-something male said, "(Let's) Go to 125th Street." The group left shortly thereafter. Most likely, the group shopped and got to see billboards of 50 Cent and P Diddy. But they probably didn't see Vergara's Harlem, and that's kind of sad.

Image is Vergara's 65 East 125th Street (2007).

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