CULTURE & ARTS
09/11/2016 08:03 am ET Updated Sep 11, 2016

Time-Lapse Photos Show How The Twin Towers Defined New York City

Camilo José Vergara's photographs, spanning 46 years, are on display this fall for the 15th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Photographer Camilo José Vergara has photographed the World Trade Center site since 1970. This view, with St. Pau
Camilo José Vergara/Library of Congress
Photographer Camilo José Vergara has photographed the World Trade Center site since 1970. This view, with St. Paul's Chapel in the foreground, shows the site in 1970, 2001, 2011 and 2016.

As the country marks the 15th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, a multisite photography exhibition looks at how the World Trade Center ― and its absence ― has defined New York’s skyline over the decades.

Camilo José Vergara moved to New York City in 1970. He grew up in Rengo, Chile ― a town where the tallest building was a three-story post office, he said. Vergara’s arrival coincided with the construction of the Twin Towers, and he has routinely photographed the site for the last 46 years.

“I saw the soaring towers as a symbol of a new world emerging,” Vergara wrote in a recent essay. “From up close, they simultaneously attracted and repelled me: I saw them as a place of exclusion, where the contradictions of wealth and poverty were extreme. But from afar the buildings were transformed. They became a place where ordinary people could dream that the skyline was theirs.”

Lower Manhattan, as seen from an abandoned pier in Jersey City, New Jersey, in 1970.
Camilo José Vergara/Library of Congress
Lower Manhattan, as seen from an abandoned pier in Jersey City, New Jersey, in 1970.

Vergara’s work is on view in three places this fall: at the New York Historical Society and the National Building Museum in New York, as well as in an online collection at the Library of Congress, which also holds Vergara’s entire archive. The exhibitions commemorate the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks that killed 2,977 people.  

Vergara’s photographs show the construction of the Twin Towers, the day of the Sept. 11 attacks, the empty space they left behind, and the new One World Trade Center building emerging on the horizon at the Ground Zero site.

View of Lower Manhattan from the Manhattan Bridge, in 1979, 2001 (two photos), 2002, 2010 (two photos), 2012, 2014 and 2016.
Camilo José Vergara/Library of Congress
View of Lower Manhattan from the Manhattan Bridge, in 1979, 2001 (two photos), 2002, 2010 (two photos), 2012, 2014 and 2016.

Vergara, a National Humanities Medal honoree and 2002 MacArthur Foundation Fellow, originally trained as a sociologist. He is transfixed by cities’ changes, visiting the same locations around the country repeatedly over decades. Often, he documents inconspicuous sites ― like a forlorn street in Camden, New Jersey, or the folk art murals of President Barack Obama that adorn the walls of inner-city shops.

New York’s architecture is much better documented than many of Vergara’s other subjects, but he still photographs the city studiously, returning to multiple spots to capture the World Trade Center site and other buildings from the same vantage points.

The Manhattan skyline, seen from the Brooklyn Bridge in 1985, 2011, 2015 and 2016.
Camilo José Vergara/Library of Congress
The Manhattan skyline, seen from the Brooklyn Bridge in 1985, 2011, 2015 and 2016.

Vergara noted one of 9/11’s unexpected consequences: Early 1900s “cathedrals of industry” regained some of their previous prominence.

These landmark skyscrapers were suddenly exposed, but today, are being eclipsed rather than framed by the new World Trade Center,” he wrote.

The World Trade Center shown from the Manhattan Bridge at Madison Street in Manhattan in 1970, 2008, 2011 and 2016. The Woolw
Camilo José Vergara/Library of Congress
The World Trade Center shown from the Manhattan Bridge at Madison Street in Manhattan in 1970, 2008, 2011 and 2016. The Woolworth Building is in the foreground with a green roof.

Critics’ reviews of the new One World Trade Center building have been mixed, but the Twin Towers weren’t always beloved architecture, either.

“Their smooth façades and uniform rows of narrow windows projected the monotony and order that are often identified with corporate culture,” Colin Moynihan writes in The New Yorker. “Though they soared higher than any other buildings in New York City, their boxlike appearance was more utilitarian than inspiring.”

Even if people disliked the buildings, there’s no denying they were iconic ― both for residents who saw them from all over the city, and for the rest of the world, which saw them towering over the skyline in countless movies and television shows.

While the shape of New York’s skyline has changed, in Vergara’s images, the changes appear to be an essential part of the city’s identity. 

Lower Manhattan from Exchange Place, Jersey City, New Jersey, in 1977, 1978, 1980, 1989, 2001, 2011, 2013 and 2016 (two photo
Camilo José Vergara/Library of Congress
Lower Manhattan from Exchange Place, Jersey City, New Jersey, in 1977, 1978, 1980, 1989, 2001, 2011, 2013 and 2016 (two photos). The last photo shows the Fourth of July fireworks this year.

“The skyline is often how people relate to cities,” Vergara told The Huffington Post. “If a city has a skyline, it enters into a different category. It’s a grand city, a great city.”

Vergara, now in his early 70s, will be photographing the 9/11 Memorial on Sunday evening and has no plans to stop shooting in New York or other cities around the country anytime soon. His latest book, Detroit Is No Dry Bones, comes out this fall.

Manhattan, seen from Brooklyn in 1990 and 2016. Vergara shot the photos looking southwest from the Independence Houses a
Credit: Camilo José Vergara/Library of Congress
Manhattan, seen from Brooklyn in 1990 and 2016. Vergara shot the photos looking southwest from the Independence Houses at Taylor Street and Wythe Place.
Vergara repeatedly shot the Manhattan skyline, with the Twin Towers dominating the earlier images, from the Staten Island Fer
Camilo José Vergara/Library of Congress
Vergara repeatedly shot the Manhattan skyline, with the Twin Towers dominating the earlier images, from the Staten Island Ferry. These shots are from 1985, 1986 (two photos), 1989, 2011, 2013 and 2016 (two photos).

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misidentified the Woolworth Building as the Trump Building.

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Kate Abbey-Lambertz covers sustainable cities, housing and inequality. Tips? Feedback? Send an email or follow her on Twitter.   

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