April 15, 2012

"They saw a very great future here": Photographs of Central Los Angeles by Camilo José Vergara

Getty Research Institute Presents First West Coast Exhibition of Photographs by Camilo José Vergara, November 4 through May 2, 1997

LOS ANGELES, Calif. - In 1992, the Greater Holy Light Missionary Baptist Church, at 7316 Broadway in South Central Los Angeles, was serving a dwindling African-American congregation. Four years later, the same building now houses the Iglesia Cristiana Jesucristo es el Camino, and the pastor, a Salvadoran woman, would like to add a second story. This is just one example of Los Angeles’ changing urban landscape as seen in a new exhibition of photographs at the Getty Research Institute for the History of Art and the Humanities. "They saw a very great future here": Photographs from Central Los Angeles by Camilo José Vergara opens November 4 and remains on view through May 2, 1997, in the 7th floor gallery of the Getty Research Institute, 401 Wilshire Boulevard, Santa Monica.

For 20 years, photographer and sociologist Camilo José Vergara has documented the physical transformation of low-income urban communities in New York, Detroit, Chicago, Newark and, most recently, Los Angeles. While the poor and homeless have long served as poignant subject matter for photographers, Vergara focuses on the urban environment of ghettoes, how they change over time, and how they reflect the lives of the people who inhabit them. By photographing the same sites over a period of several years, Vergara documents how a movie theater is converted into a church by the addition of a sign, some crosses, and a bible; how a storefront is abandoned and later remodeled into a drug treatment center; and how an apartment building is closed, boarded up, covered with graffiti, and ultimately torn down.

"They saw a very great future here," co-curated by Vergara and Research Institute Deputy Director Thomas Reese, includes photographs, taken primarily from 1992 to 1996, of East Los Angeles, Pacoima, Skid Row, and South Central Los Angeles. Through his photographs and interviews with neighborhood residents, Vergara captures the physical evidence of people coping with the effects of chronic poverty--from boarded-up and abandoned buildings to security fencing, barred Windows, and colorful murals that disguise a disintegrating infrastructure.

"Central Los Angeles is a port of entry," says Vergara, "teeming with poor people struggling to find a place to live, work, and raise children--people who want to speak their language, eat the foods they are accustomed to, and share in the city’s prosperity. Here, openness coexists with closure. Fortresses surrounded by spiky fences sit next to colorful vernacular structures."

In his photographs of Los Angeles, Vergara captures the ongoing impact of the 1992 riots on buildings in South Central, the complex economy of downtown’s Skid Row, and the transformation of traditionally African-American communities by the recent influx of new inhabitants of Latino descent. Among the photographs are: a city block, destroyed in the 1992 riots and now surrounded by fencing used by plumbers, carpet cleaners, and hair dressers to advertise their services; a portrait of Martin Luther King on one storefront commissioned by a Latino business owner from a Latino artist in order to attract African American customers and discourage graffiti taggers; an anonymous storefront whose crosses and faded praying hands indicate that it was once a church.

Vergara, born and raised in Chile, came to the United States in 1965 to study at the University of Notre Dame. He received a master’s degree in sociology from Columbia University and the Revson Fellowship at Columbia University’s School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. His photographs have been exhibited at the National Building Museum, the New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, the Queens Museum of Art and elsewhere. He has written about urban issues for several publications, most notably The Nation. He is the author of The New American Ghetto (Rutgers University Press, 1995). Vergara is currently a visiting scholar at the Getty Research Institute. This is the first west coast exhibition of his work.

"They saw a very great future here" is part of a year-long series of events and activities relating to Los Angeles organized by the Getty Research Institute. These events include: · The 1996-97 scholar year, Perspectives on Los Angeles: Narratives, Images, History, in which 28 writers, artists, and academics are studying the people, historical events, and economic forces that have shaped Los Angeles ·"L.A. as Subject," a project to inventory local historical resources on the cultural heritage and evolution of Los Angeles ·"L.A. Culture Net," a unique, collaborative initiative under the leadership of the Getty Information Institute which is creating a local, on-line cultural community.

The activities will culminate in late 1997 with the public opening of the Getty Center, a cultural complex dedicated to the visual arts and the humanities, now under construction in the Sepulveda Pass alongside the San Diego (405) freeway.

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