Gritty Photos Capture the Real Street Life of New York in the 1970s

Camilo Jose Vergara new york in the 1970s

South Bronx

Chilean street photographer Camilo José Vergara moved to New York City in 1968, after completing his sociology degree at Notre Dame. Combining his academic interests with his creative passion, he began photographing the streets of the city, capturing the gritty streets of the South Bronx and Lower East Side.

As time carried on, Vergara began exploring how photography could document urban evolution, which led him to systematically photograph neighborhoods over time to track their changes. Sometimes compared to the late 19th-century photographer Jacob Riis, his work gives a unique look at the evolution of New York neighborhoods as they shifted from economically depressed slums to the areas we know today. Not only interested in physical change, Vergara was keenly aware that social behaviors would also shift in tandem with the changing times and neighborhood dynamics.

As his career has evolved, Vergara continues this project, Tracking Time, across different American cities, including Detroit, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Newark. He's published several books, including Tracking Time: Documenting America's Post-Industrial CitiesHarlem: The Unmaking of a Ghetto, and his newest publication Detroit Is No Dry Bones: The Eternal City of the Industrial Age.

He also received a 2012 National Humanities Medal for his work. “Camilo José Vergara is a man with a mission. For over four decades he has been photographing the poorest neighborhoods in several of America’s poorest cities, as well as Harlem, the anomalous poor neighborhood in a rich city,” wrote renowned photography critic William Meyers at the time. “The accretion of his images over the years makes his work an invaluable resource for those interested in understanding the course of urban blight that plagued the country in the second half of the twentieth century.”

To understand Vergara's beginnings, it's essential to take a look at his Old New York series, which are his images from the early 1970s. Taken prior to beginning Tracking Time, they display his keen interest in getting into the fabric of a neighborhood and the people who inhabit it.

Camilo José Vergara's street photography from the early 1970s shows the gritty streets of Harlem, the Lower East Side, and South Bronx.

Camilo José Vergara 70s new york

Fifth Ave at 110th Street, East Harlem

Camilo José Vergara documentary photographer

Puerto Rican wedding, East Harlem

Camilo José Vergara documentary photographer

Girls with Barbies, East Harlem

Camilo José Vergara 70s new york

Cadillac Fleetwood, Harlem

Camilo José Vergara 70s new york

Bronx River, Bronx

Camilo José Vergara documentary photographer

On the way to Harlem

Vergara has a degree in sociology and has used his documentary photography as a method to provoke change.

Camilo José Vergara new york street photography

Avenue C, Lower East Side

Camilo José Vergara new york in the 1970s

Eagle and Westchester Avenues, Bronx

Camilo José Vergara documentary photographer

East Harlem

Camilo José Vergara documentary photographer

View of the World Trade Center under construction from Duane Street

Camilo José Vergara new york street photography

Lower East Side music shop

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Jessica Stewart

Jessica Stewart is a Contributing Writer and Digital Media Specialist for My Modern Met, as well as a curator and art historian. Since 2020, she is also one of the co-hosts of the My Modern Met Top Artist Podcast. She earned her MA in Renaissance Studies from University College London and now lives in Rome, Italy. She cultivated expertise in street art which led to the purchase of her photographic archive by the Treccani Italian Encyclopedia in 2014. When she’s not spending time with her three dogs, she also manages the studio of a successful street artist. In 2013, she authored the book 'Street Art Stories Roma' and most recently contributed to 'Crossroads: A Glimpse Into the Life of Alice Pasquini'. You can follow her adventures online at @romephotoblog.
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