Henry Chalfant's Iconic Subway Art Photography Goes to Bronx

September 25, 2019

No photographer has documented the emergence and development of street art and hip-hop culture as honestly as Henry Chalfant did. One of the foremost authorities on the New York subway art and other aspects of urban youth culture, his photographs and films immortalized hundreds of ephemeral, original artworks that have long since vanished. These archives remain a remarkable work of visual anthropology and one of the seminal documents of American popular culture in the late twentieth century.

The work of this pioneering photographer is returning to the Bronx - the place where it all began - for the first U.S. retrospective at the Bronx Museum of the Arts. Titled Henry Chalfant: Art Vs. Transit, 1977-1987, the exhibition will take a look back at the Bronx-born beginnings of this rebellious art form launched amid a tumultuous time in New York City history.

Henry Chalfant, DJAY KSlay and crew, 102nd St. East Harlem, NY 1983, Mare and Pade in the New Lots train yard, East New York, NY. 1981
Left: DJAY KSlay and crew, 102nd St. East Harlem, NY 1983 / Right: Mare and Pade in the New Lots train yard, East New York, NY. 1981. © 2018 Henry Chalfant / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy Eric Firestone Gallery, New York

The Photography of Henry Chalfant

Initiated in the early 1970s by teenagers and young people who used the infrastructure of the city as their canvas, graffiti took the world by storm, becoming a cultural movement along with hip-hop and breakdancing. After moving to New York in 1973, Henry Chalfant immediately took interest in this burgeoning culture, ultimately becoming its definitive historian.

Initially perceived as a cop, the artist soon became a mainstay of the scene, documenting the everyday lives of graffiti writers, rappers, and breakdance crews throughout the ’80s to early ‘90s in New York City. By 1977, he has developed a technique of capturing exposures in rapid succession in order to document the entire train in multiple, overlapping shots. Chalfont also co-produced the iconic PBS documentary Style Wars and directed Flyin’ Cut Sleeves, a film that chronicled South Bronx gangs back in 1993.

Through his lens, we can now see the long-gone works by some of the legendary graffiti artists, such as Dondi, Futura, Lady Pink, Lee Quiñones, and Zephyr, and Bronx legends including Blade, Crash, DAZE, Dez, Kel, Mare, SEEN, Skeme, and T-Kid.

Henry Chalfant - Revolt Min (Rasta RTW), 1979, 2013. Kodak Professional Endura metallic paper,12h x 60w in
Henry Chalfant - Revolt Min (Rasta RTW), 1979, 2013. Kodak Professional Endura metallic paper, 12 x 60 in. © 2018 Henry Chalfant / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy Eric Firestone Gallery, New York

Exhibition Highlights

Curated by the renowned Spanish street artist SUSO33, the exhibition will be a fitting celebration of a global art movement that was born in the Bronx and upper Manhattan.

The highlight of the show will be Chalfant's subway car photographs, rendered as life-sized prints of train cars which simulate the experience of a graffiti writer standing on the tracks and looking up. These works demonstrate a diversity of graffiti styles, from "burners" to iconic full-car murals.

The visitors will also have an opportunity to see over 100 of Chalfant's smaller photographs, including significant and rare historical ephemera from Chalfant’s personal archives as well as his more anthropological photographs capturing the birth of the hip hop movement. These include black book drawings and outlines by subway writers, objects from various art exhibitions and hip hop shows, as well as over 200 photographs of icons like SEEN and the Rock Steady Crew, along with lesser-known DJs at park jams in the Bronx, and graffiti artists at the writer’s bench on 149th street.

The section of the gallery will be recreated as Chalfant’s SoHo studio, where many of these artists used to come to browse through his photographs and compare their works with their friends and rivals. The exhibition will also feature archival videos, including All City from 1983 and a video produced in 1982 by Kodak about Henry Chalfant’s technique for capturing subway art.

Henry Chalfant - Eye of the Tiger, by Bil Blast, Amsterdam and 101 st. Manhattan, 1982
Henry Chalfant - Eye of the Tiger, by Bil Blast, Amsterdam and 101 st. Manhattan, 1982. © 2018 Henry Chalfant / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy Eric Firestone Gallery, New York

Henry Chalfant: Art Vs. Transit, 1977-1987 at the Bronx Museum of the Arts

The exhibition in the Bronx will provide a long-awaited homecoming for the work of Henry Chalfant.

Henry Chalfant: Art Vs. Transit, 1977-1987 will be on view at The Bronx Museum of the Arts in New York from September 25th, 2019 until March 8th, 2020.

Featured images: Henry Chalfant - Shoot the Pump, South Bronx, NY, 1985; Riding with pride between the cars on the IRT. circa 1980; Mattress Acrobat, Hoe Avenue, the Bronx, 1987; Wall by Rize and Lil Man, Ven - Washington Heights, Manhattan, NYC. 1986; Destroyed and Abandoned buildings along Hoe Ave and the IRT line in the Bronx, 1981; Mattress Acrobat, Hoe Avenue, the Bronx, 1987; Shoot the Pump, South Bronx, NY, 1985; Rock Steady Crew at the Dyckman St Playground, 1981; Gman prepares for the Park Jam, 144th St. & 3rd Ave. The Bronx, 1984; Left: Richard Hambleton hits wall with his Shadow Man, 3rd Avenue, the Bronx, 1982 / Right: SEEN at his MADSEEN mural in the East Bronx, 1985; Left: BLADE paints a Handball Court at Orchard Beach, 1986 / Right: FREEDOM by his self-portrait with spray-can head. 1982. All images © 2018 Henry Chalfant / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy Eric Firestone Gallery, New York. Courtesy The Bronx Museum of the Arts.

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