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Subway photographer Henry Chalfant’s photos of ’70s and ’80s NYC documented in new exhibit

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The exhibit showcases the rise of graffiti art in the Bronx

A street filled with rubble and an above-ground train filled with graffiti passing through.
“Destroyed and abandoned buildings along Hoe Ave and the IRT line in the Bronx, 1981.”
Photos: 2018 Henry Chalfant/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of Eric Firestone Gallery, New York.

While buildings were burning in the Bronx in the 1970s, consumed by discriminatory practices and neglect, residents of the borough were rebuilding and creating. In the 1970s, the borough saw the rise of graffiti art, as young Bronxites used the city’s streets and subway cars as their canvas.

During the 1970s and ’80s, photographer Henry Chalfant documented this movement, and now, an exhibition at the Bronx Museum, Henry Chalfant: Art Vs. Transit 1977-1987—on view until March 8, 2020—showcases his works and that of several graffiti artists from that time.

The exhibition, curated by Spanish street artist SUSO33, features several life-sized print photos by Chalfant which showcase works by graffiti artists including Lady Pink, Lee Quiñones, Zephyr, Bade, Daze, Skeme, Futura, Skeme, T-Kid among others. The prints show different graffiti styles (from “burners” to full-car murals) and more than 100 other Chalfant photos. Also featured in the exhibit are Chalfant photos that capture the birth of the hip-hop movement.

The exhibit also recreates Chalfant’s 1980s Soho studio and includes a soundtrack of subway sounds and archival videos.

Chalfant moved from Pennsylvania to New York City in 1973, and shortly thereafter, began capturing subway art in uptown above-ground stations. By 1977, he had mastered the technique of capturing an entire train in multiple shots on his 35mm camera.

A train car painted in colorful graffiti.
A graffiti-painted subway car, image titled “Style Wars.”
A NYC train car painted in colorful graffiti.
Art by T-kid.

Many of Chalfant’s photos, on view in the exhibit, show teenagers being creative and playing on the streets, with abandoned buildings on the back. Some of them show children smiling while they walk between cars and standing on train platforms; while others show intimate portraits of them in action painting subway cars.

A black-and-white photo of a child painting a subway car.
“Min paints a train in the Sutphin Blvd. Layup, 1981.”
A black-and-white photo of children jumping onto a graffiti-covered subway car.
“Mare and Pade in the New Lots train yard, East New York, NY. 1981”

“A lot of trains were painted by groups of kids, the social life of the graffiti writers was to belong to a crew,” Chalfant told Artsy in a recent interview.

One of his photos shows teenagers jumping on a mattress on a rubble-filled street. “This is youth creativity under stress,” Chalfant told Artsy about the photo. “Jumping upside down over mattresses and box springs emblematizes to me [how] in the absence of places to play, afterschool programs, they invent their own.”

Children playing on a street filled with rubble. An abandoned building can be seen in the back.
“Mattress Acrobat, Hoe Avenue, the Bronx, 1987.”

Along with Martha Cooper, Chalfant co-authored Subway Art (1984) and Spray Can Art (1987). He also co-produced Style Wars, a 1983 documentary about hip-hop culture and graffiti, which, according to the Bronx Museum, “immortalized this transient art form when it was still in its adolescence.”

Originally produced by SUSO33 for Madrid’s Centro de Arte Tomás y Valiente, the exhibit made its way to the Bronx Museum thanks to a Kickstarter campaign, which raised $31,181.

“What we were doing was using a language among ourselves and talking to each other,” John Matos, a graffiti artist known as Crash, whose work also appears in Chalfant’s photos, told the New York Times in 2012. “Henry [Chalfant] brought an intellectual eye to it, and I guess that was needed. He was able to manifest our language to the public so they could see it differently. He brought a clandestine thing out into the open.”

“Henry Chalfant: Art Vs. Transit 1977-1987” will be on view at the Bronx Museum until March 8, 2020.