The photographer and writer Camilo José Vergara moved to New York City in 1970, two years after construction on the World Trade Center towers had started. The completed buildings became an inescapable part of his visual landscape, as a New Yorker and as a documentarian of the city; they showed up everywhere, even when he wasn’t expressly photographing them. During their nearly three decades of existence, the twin towers were captured by Vergara across a vast assortment of contexts: times, locations, weather conditions. On September 11, 2001, he traveled downtown on foot, capturing the calamity of that day in all its chaos, confusion, and loss. He photographed the aftermath at the site over the days, weeks, and years that followed the world-shattering event.
Highlights from Vergara’s half-century of photographing the site of Minoru Yamasaki’s twin towers have now been collected in a recently opened National Building Museum exhibition: The Towers of the WTC: 51 Years of Photography by Camilio José Vergara.
Born in Santiago, Chile, Vergara became renowned for his work documenting the state of the post-industrial American city, the once-thriving manufacturing towns—such as Detroit; Camden, New Jersey; and Gary, Indiana—hollowed out by globalism. “For more than four decades I have devoted myself to photographing and documenting the poorest and most segregated communities in urban America,” Vergara writes, in his preface to Tracking Time. “I feel that a people’s past, including their accomplishments, aspirations and failures, are reflected less in the faces of those who live in these neighborhoods than in the material, built environment in which they move and modify over time.” A MacArthur fellow in 2002, he was also honored with the National Humanities Medal by President Obama in 2012. Two weeks before his National Building Museum exhibition opened, I talked with the photographer about his history with the twin towers, that fateful Tuesday 20 years ago, and what he thinks of the site two decades later.
MCP: Martin C. Pedersen
CJV: Camilo José Vergara
Tell me the background of how this exhibition at the museum came to be.
It started 51 years ago, when I came to New York and the trade center towers were being built. There was a hole, trucks, all this movement, and the towers were halfway up. I was very impressed by their shape, size—and even though I had seen pictures of the models, for me, the mystery of what they were going to be remained. I thought that the towers symbolized the power of a new America. I followed the towers to their completion, in 1973, and photographed them from a distance as part of the skyline for nearly 30 years. When my kids were young, I would bring them to the observatory to look at the city where they lived and be awed by it.
Yes, their city, and my city. Before 9/11 I was constantly photographing the city from high points of view, mostly from the roofs of housing projects and elevated subway lines. From these vantage points, the towers would show up in the distance.
I used them as orientation devices. I would get out of a subway station downtown, check for the towers, and then know that direction was downtown.
A lot of people used to do that. Most New Yorkers never went to Lower Manhattan, but the towers were there anyway, part of their life. For months after 9/11, subway riders crossing the Manhattan Bridge turned their heads and looked at the gap left where the twin towers once were.
The perception of them changed over time. They were largely unpopular when they went up, and then they became, even before they fell, part of the background. They were inevitable.
They were so large, compared to the other buildings, that they made all of the views of the skyline appear lopsided. From the Staten Island Ferry, it seemed like Lower Manhattan was going to tip. And then there was the mystery of being twins, never separated. It gave the towers a power that single buildings don’t have.
One thing about big buildings, even if you don’t have any active engagement with them, working in them or even living near them: they’re part of your aesthetic life, whether you like it or not. That was certainly true about the towers.
Well, yes, and they were never the same. The atmosphere between you and the towers changed the way you perceived them. In winter, they were reflected on the East River, clouds could be seen moving on their exterior. And when the humidity was high or when it rained or snowed, the towers almost disappeared.
Were you in New York on 9/11?
Yes. I took the subway to try to get to Lower Manhattan, but only got to 42nd Street and had to walk from there. I was curious and afraid. People set up televisions on the hoods of their cars, with long extension cords, so they could watch the burning buildings on television. And then they could see it in real time by simply looking south.
I had a similar experience. I was walking through the New York Life Building, past a financial services kiosk that usually had stock prices running on the TV. On that Tuesday morning, I walked past, glanced at the TV, and there was an airplane stuck to the side of one of the twin towers. I did a double-take and initially thought that it was a small plane. I had no idea what I was looking at. But then I walked out into Madison Square Park and when I looked down Broadway, I could see the towers. It was clear then that something horrible was happening. Because it wasn’t a small plane at all.
The first news accounts on the radio said it was a small plane. So the rest came as a great surprise.
What was it like to go through all of these pictures? It’s the entire life of these two buildings, from construction to completion, destruction, and eventual rebuilding.
There are 52 photographs in the exhibition. What makes this project unique is the use of time sequences.
Meaning what, exactly?
For me a picture is a question. With a single photograph, the question may only give rise to more questions, together with other pictures, from the same point of view, taken maybe a year later, a narrative develops. It may continue to raise questions, but a close observation of the images allows for the development of a narrative capturing some crucial aspects of the story.
And it captures your relationship to that building over time.
But that’s not consequential. The important thing is capturing a part of the city and the images together tell you how it changed during a period of time. How it affected me is a separate thing. I wrote about how it affected me in a little book that came out in 2002 called Twin Towers Remembered.
Are some of the images in the exhibition from that book, along with additional images?
Yes, but my whole perspective in 2021 is different. I went through all of the pictures I had and realized that many that I decided not to use in 2002 were very interesting. Right now I’m looking at one of those pictures. It’s Two World Trade Center. To me, it’s very powerful. It shows Liberty Street and an old drug store being bulldozed into rubble to make way for the towers.
Was that the first image you took of the site?
I took the first ones in 1970. But I don’t have the exact dates. I have the year, because they were color slides and had the year printed on the cardboard frames. I used high-speed Ektachrome, a film that’s not as lasting as Kodachrome, which I began to use in 1977. So I figured in those pictures the color would have faded and lost their sharpness, but they actually looked pretty good. They form the backbone of this exhibition.
What’s the timeframe of the exhibition?
I took the last photograph a month ago.
What do you think of what has replaced those towers? We’re now 20 years later and the site is more or less complete.
I love the pools and the landscaping around them. I like the museum very much. But World Trade Center One looks brutal to me.
It is a fortress.
Yes. If you want to find things in architecture that delight you, you would have a really hard time finding them there.
I’ll play the devil’s advocate and say that the twin towers were hardly delightful.
Nobody’s arguing that. And the site today does have some wonderful buildings. I happen to love the transportation center.
Calatrava’s building. Most people hate the building, because of the cost, which I understand. But the interior space is gorgeous, in spite of itself. And I know that it’s a mall. I understand that it cost $4 billion, which is insane. But every time I go there, I think: This is a beautiful room, mall or no mall.
It’s one of the great interior spaces in New York.
From a distance, the whole skyline looks fine. But I liked it a lot better when there was more space between the skyscrapers. There are too many buildings in Lower Manhattan right now.
It’s pretty crowded.
You miss the wonderful spaces between the buildings that contributed to the richness and diversity of the skyline. Several American cities—Detroit, Philadelphia, certainly Chicago—have more than a hundred years of skyscrapers on display, a wonderful mixture of columns, towers, domes, and temples, that together with modern striped down skyscrapers are in dialogue with each other. You don’t find that in Beijing or Dubai.
All images courtesy of Camilo José Vergara.