As the country marks the 15th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, a multisite photography exhibition looks at how the World Trade Center ― and its absence ― has defined New York’s skyline over the decades.
Camilo José Vergara moved to New York City in 1970. He grew up in Rengo, Chile ― a town where the tallest building was a three-story post office, he said. Vergara’s arrival coincided with the construction of the Twin Towers, and he has routinely photographed the site for the last 46 years.
“I saw the soaring towers as a symbol of a new world emerging,” Vergara wrote in a recent essay. “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.”
Vergara’s work is on view in three places this fall: at the New York Historical Society and the National Building Museum in New York, as well as in an online collection at the Library of Congress, which also holds Vergara’s entire archive. The exhibitions commemorate the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks that killed 2,977 people.
Vergara’s photographs show the construction of the Twin Towers, the day of the Sept. 11 attacks, the empty space they left behind, and the new One World Trade Center building emerging on the horizon at the Ground Zero site.
Vergara, a National Humanities Medal honoree and 2002 MacArthur Foundation Fellow, originally trained as a sociologist. He is transfixed by cities’ changes, visiting the same locations around the country repeatedly over decades. Often, he documents inconspicuous sites ― like a forlorn street in Camden, New Jersey, or the folk art murals of President Barack Obama that adorn the walls of inner-city shops.
New York’s architecture is much better documented than many of Vergara’s other subjects, but he still photographs the city studiously, returning to multiple spots to capture the World Trade Center site and other buildings from the same vantage points.
Vergara noted one of 9/11’s unexpected consequences: Early 1900s “cathedrals of industry” regained some of their previous prominence.
“These landmark skyscrapers were suddenly exposed, but today, are being eclipsed rather than framed by the new World Trade Center,” he wrote.
Critics’ reviews of the new One World Trade Center building have been mixed, but the Twin Towers weren’t always beloved architecture, either.
“Their smooth façades and uniform rows of narrow windows projected the monotony and order that are often identified with corporate culture,” Colin Moynihan writes in The New Yorker. “Though they soared higher than any other buildings in New York City, their boxlike appearance was more utilitarian than inspiring.”
Even if people disliked the buildings, there’s no denying they were iconic ― both for residents who saw them from all over the city, and for the rest of the world, which saw them towering over the skyline in countless movies and television shows.
While the shape of New York’s skyline has changed, in Vergara’s images, the changes appear to be an essential part of the city’s identity.
“The skyline is often how people relate to cities,” Vergara told The Huffington Post. “If a city has a skyline, it enters into a different category. It’s a grand city, a great city.”
Vergara, now in his early 70s, will be photographing the 9/11 Memorial on Sunday evening and has no plans to stop shooting in New York or other cities around the country anytime soon. His latest book, Detroit Is No Dry Bones, comes out this fall.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misidentified the Woolworth Building as the Trump Building.