Beyond Photography: Studs Terkel, Meet Camilo José Vergara

Studs Terkel (1912-2008)

Studs Terkel lived to witness most of the last century and the dawn of this one, chronicling what he saw along the way. He began as a writer in the WPA (Works Progress Administration), and later became legendary as a broadcaster. For all the fame he gained in radio, interviewing the likes of Louis Armstrong and Bob Dylan, he never stopped being a writer. Terkel’s many oral histories covered subjects as diverse as the Second World War to the state of race relations in America. 

He was also blessed with that rarest of all gifts: the good sense to get out of the way to see what his subject had to say. It was a talent that served him well, since often as not, those chronicles weren’t in his own words, but in others’. Their strength lies in the extraordinary stories he drew out of ordinary people. Those stories come from a diverse lot – riveters, sharecroppers, hoboes, office workers, shop girls and others of that ilk. It’s very nearly like seeing another America, except for the fact that this is the land that’s been beneath our feet all along.  

Trees in the abandoned Camden Library; photo by Camilo José Vergara

Like Studs Terkel, Camilo José Vergara’s early love never left him. He bought a camera while still a sociology student at Notre Dame, and his training as a sociologist informs his work behind the camera — which, in turn, takes his sociological explorations in new directions. Based in New York, Vergara’s work has taken him from coast to coast, covering everything from the architecture of, and customs behind, cemeteries to the homes, houses of worship, and people of the inner cities of New York, New Jersey, California, and several points in between.

 Vergara, like Terkel, has turned his attention to what’s too often neglected. Where Terkel concerned himself with the stories of largely forgotten or overlooked people, however, Vergara instead teases stories out of the forgotten corners of the city itself. This isn’t just history; it’s a mirror, or a magnifying glass, held up to the way we live now.

Another thing that Terkel and Vergara share in common, in addition to the way the different facets of their life’s work inform one another, is an interest not so much in the broad sweep of history, so much as its gritty, quotidian details. What both have done at their best — and both men, to be sure, are very good, very often — is to stop us dead in our tracks to pay attention to something we would otherwise have disregarded or written off as mere background noise.

As photographers or storytellers we find that these narratives, whether of everyday people or of the spaces they inhabit, aren’t just self-referential. If we take the time to listen, they also have quite a bit to tell us about ourselves.

More to Explore: Click to visit Studs Terkel’s official website, his Wikipedia entry or his page on Amazon (affiliate link). Also explore Camilo José Vergara’s “Invincible Cities” or his work at the Getty Museum, view photo essays from Slate here, here, or here, read his Wikipedia entry, or check out his books on Amazon (affiliate link).

Songs About Photography

I thought I’d shift gears today and put up a list of photography-related songs just for fun. A couple of these are a bit of a stretch, admittedly. But really, would “Alice’s Restaurant” be the same without “twenty-seven 8X10 color glossy pictures with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one…”? We all need something to listen to while we’re working in Photoshop, right? And on the off chance you’ve got an afternoon to waste, the songs that have links attached go to YouTube, for your viewing/listening pleasure.


3X5 (John Mayer)

Alice’s Restaurant (Arlo Guthrie)

All the Negatives Have Been Destroyed (Spoon)

Camera (REM)

My Camera Never Lies (Bucks Fizz)

The Camera Eye (Rush)

The Camera Never Lies (Michael Franks)

The Cover of Rolling Stone (Dr. Hook)

Distant Camera (Neil Young)

Editions of You (Roxy Music)

Every Picture Tells a Story (Rod Stewart)

F Stop Blues (Jack Johnson)

Family Snapshot (Peter Gabriel)

Freeze Frame (J. Geils Band)

From a Photograph (Chris Whitley)

Gentlemen Take Polaroids (Japan)

Getting the Picture (Jimmy Buffet)

Girls on Film (Duran Duran)

Hey Ya (Outkast)

I Am a Camera (Buggles)

I Turn My Camera On (Spoon)

In My Room (Yaz)

Into the Lens (Yes)

Kamera (Wilco)

Kevin Carter (Manic Street Preachers)

Kodachrome (Paul Simon)

Life Through a Lens (Robbie Williams)

Local Boy in the Photograph (Stereophonics)

Miniature Secret Camera (Peter Murphy)

Paparazzi (Lady Gaga)

Peg (Steely Dan)

Photograph (Blue Rodeo)

Photograph (Jamie Cullum)

Photograph (Def Leppard)

Photograph (Johnny Mathis)

Photograph (Natalie Merchant & Michael Stipe)

Photograph (Nickelback)

Photograph (Ringo Starr)

Photograph (Weezer)

A Photograph of You (Depeche Mode)

Photographic (Depeche Mode)

Photographs and Memories (Jim Croce)

Picture Book (The Kinks)

Picture Postcard (Steve Hackett)

Picture This (Blondie)

Pictures (Statler Brothers)

Pictures of Lily (The Who)

Pictures of You (The Cure)

Please Just Take These Photos from My Hands (Snow Patrol)

Send a Picture of Mother (Johnny Cash)

Snapshot (Kinky)

Take a Picture (Filter)

Traces (The Association)

Turning Japanese (The Vapors)

Wishing (If I Had a Photograph) (Flock of Seagulls)


If I’ve missed something, drop me a line.