Camilo José Vergara, about to receive his National Medal at the White House on July 10, 2013. (Photo/Getty Images)

First photographer to be awarded the National Humanities Medal

After more than 40 years telling stories, Camilo José Vergara has reached the ranks of Joan Didion and Tony Kushner by receiving the 2012 National Humanities Medal this week from the President. Only one thing makes Vergara distinct — he tells his stories through photos, instead of words. He is also the first photographer to ever receive this honor.

 “Camilo José Vergara, for his stark visual representation of American cities,” was how the thought-provoking photographer was acknowledged for his award at the White House. “By capturing images of urban settings over time, his sequences reflect the vibrant culture of our changing communities and document the enduring spirit that shines through decay.”

The 2002 MacArthur fellow, whose books include, “American Ruins” and “How the Other Half Worships,”  likes to photograph American cities, photographing the same buildings and neighborhoods from the exact spot, over many years, to capture changes over time.

“For more than four decades, I have devoted myself to photographing and systematically documenting the poorest and most segregated communities in urban America,” Vergara says in an essay for LightBox. “My focus is on established East Coast cities such as New York, Newark and Camden; rust belt cities of the Midwest like Detroit and Chicago; and such West Coast cities as Los Angeles and Richmond, California.”

Vergara, who received a masters in sociology from Columbia University in 1977, originally used people as his muse. “But increasingly, I became drawn to the urban fabric of America’s poor inner cities — to the buildings that composed it and the life and culture embedded in its structures and streets,” writes Vergara.

Born in Chile and based in New York, Vergara says he captured the ever-vital street life of neighborhoods.

Vergara gathers inspiration “from stoop gatherings and parades to murals memorializing drug dealers, rappers and great leaders who are especially admired in such neighborhoods,” writes the Chilean-born photographer, based in New York. “I also look for the new shapes of old businesses, of emerging new ones and of new uses for old places. Wishing to keep the documentation open, I include places such as empty lots, which as segments of a temporal sequence are often especially revealing.”

In later years, he started using Google and Google Maps in his work so that he could discover information about the people and events which occurred in the locations he photographed.

“Through photography, I have become a builder of virtual cities…My hope is that my long-term records will become part of our collective urban memory.”

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