The World Trade Center towers that were destroyed on September 11, 2001 were New York’s most visible landmarks. To one photographer they had many meanings as he documented them over their nearly 30-year history.
With his keen eye, photographer Camilo Jose Vergara has been an observer of New York City since he first arrived from Chile 36 years ago. A book and photo exhibit at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. documented Mr. Vergara’s 30-year-long interest in the World Trade Center towers.
“It’s a story of the towers going from the time when they were still being completed to the time when they were attacked and destroyed, to the time with the city trying to live without them,” he said.
When he first saw the towers being built he was critical and saw them as symbols of corporate insensitivity. But that view changed over time. “I was kind of a muckraker at the beginning in my view of the Trade Center, my first photographs. It was sort of social criticism. It seemed a misguided enterprise. But then it changed once the Trade Center was completed," he said.
It was Mr. Vergara’s ability to see the towers in different ways that led him to continue taking pictures of them for nearly 30 years.
“The Trade Center was like a blank page. You know, as the day changes, the light changes," he said. "They were like canvasses. Not just a building presented to you and given to you in a way and that’s the way you have to take it. But it’s always changing.”
Camilo Vergara often photographed the towers in the context of their surroundings. From different viewpoints the buildings took on different meanings. “It had to do with the light, it had to do with the river, it had to do with the size. It had to do with the fact that they jumped up, everywhere. You would go to Jersey City and there they were,” he said.
Although never seen as a great work of architecture, the towers held their own distinction. The duality of the two tower structures and their equality of form were symbolic suggestions to some.
“The fact that there were two. One always thought of them as a marriage, a couple, two friends. There is all of this association that two have together that one doesn’t have,” he said.
The towers were landmarks, reference points for great distances around New York City.
“When I would go to photograph in Brooklyn or I would go and photograph in New Jersey, the buildings would kind of follow me.” The towers became like part of his family over the years and he photographed his own children with them.
“I like my son, of course," he said. "He is now 21.”
On the day the towers were destroyed, Camilo Vergara was several miles away at his apartment. “I had that sense that the day was a day like no other that the city had ever had. It was very sad. It was very sad. I just took pictures. Couldn’t do anything else.”
On that day the world began to think of the towers that Camilo Vergara had contemplated for nearly 30 years. “I have the pictures, so in a sense I haven’t lost the Trade Center. It may sound silly to you, but I still have it…I feel the World Trade Center is still with me,” he said.
Part of VOA's coverage of the anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks