Camilo Jose Vergara images of the twin towers
Camilo Jose Vergara’s “View of Lower Manhattan from the Manhattan Bridge, November 1979”; Photo courtesy of the National Building Museum

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The Towers of the WTC: 51 Years of Photographs by Camilo Jose Vergara

From the time the World Trade Center was first being constructed in the early 1970s, Camilo Jose Vergara became the twin towers’ unofficial house photographer. This was a stroke of good fortune. Vergara, who settled in New York City not long after graduating college, transformed into an unusual documentarian—a sociologist by training and a photographer by avocation, with a focus on urbanism and architecture as well as a penchant for returning time and again to the same locations in order to record the passage of time. This made Vergara the perfect photographer to track the complex, from the clearance of the humble but functional Radio Row neighborhood that preceded it, to its high-profile role as the home of the world’s tallest buildings, to its destruction on Sept. 11, 2001, and finally to its eventual rebirth. For the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, the National Building Museum is mounting an exhibition of several dozen of Vergara’s images of the World Trade Center. Initially, Vergara was put off by the arrogance of the project and the buildings’ seemingly bland architecture—he made sure his early images included nearby homeless people and bulldozed storefronts—but, eventually, the complex grew on him. His photographs reflected the towers’ clean lines amid the increasingly diverse skyline. The exhibit includes several quintessential Vergara undertakings—one longitudinal series featuring an old church in the towers’ shadows, and a cycle of six images taken from the same spot on the Manhattan Bridge between 1979 and 2021, showing the presence, absence, and reappearance of a monumental building on the site. One of these six images was made the day of the attacks, with the site still smoldering. The exhibit runs to March 6, 2022, at the National Building Museum, 401 F St. NW. $7–$10.