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American Ruins

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review By Camilo Jose Vergara. Monacelli Press, 1999. 224pp. £40

In the photographs and text of his earlier book, The New American Ghetto (aj 4.7.96), Camilo Jose Vergara showed vividly the downside of American prosperity in the late twentieth century: a polarisation of rich and poor in which parts of East Coast and Midwest cities (Vergara's terrain) seem left to terminal decline. American Ruins continues the story, writes Andrew Mead.

Vergara roams New York, Newark, Detroit and the like to record - sometimes in time-lapse images taken over several years - the fate of inner-city fabric as buildings both grand and modest fall into ruin. If some of the photographs seem underplayed in the size at which they are used, this is probably because Vergara wants to convey the sense of a documentary record rather than his own virtuosity. Titling one chapter 'Mendelsohn's Amerika Revisited', and so evoking that book's celebratory air, gives added piquancy to Vergara's own account.

Pictured is a section of the Hebrew Institute of University Heights, South Bronx, which has been closed for many years. As Vergara says: 'Seals cannot protect a building from deterioration over time. Without periodic maintenance, even well-built structures fall apart.'

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