Here's a book review I wrote for allhiphop.com and the classic book on 70's NYC graffitti by Henry Chalfant and Martha Cooper. Happy 25th year anniversary, Subway Art!
Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant, both world-class photographers in their own right, reclaim graffiti fame with this 25th anniversary re-release of their remarkable visual documentation of graffiti’s golden age in the late 70’s and early 80’s. The portfolio-sized book is not one of those stuffy academic releases dedicated to the history of graffiti, its commercialization, or global significance. The portraits in Subway Art only depict either one of two things: the artist and/or his work.
The graffiti writers (most of them started out as young delinquents bombing trains) latched on to the idea of Cooper and Chalfant recording their lives through photos, though they did not necessarily have the foresight to realize they were being immortalized as pioneers of a major phenomenon. Even the photographers themselves were hard-pressed to predict the graffiti’s continental influence. Henry Chalfant admits, “We never thought of the book as an exhaustive survey of the entire history of the graffiti movement; rather it was an extraordinary record of a movement that we had observed from our point of view.”
Surveying the freight-car long photos of iridescent pieces—most of which were done by aerosol cans in train lots at the end of the 2, 3, and 5 lines in the Bronx and Brooklyn—one can’t help but ponder the peril behind producing some of these fabled works. Among the artists who went on put on exhibitions and establish careers as graphic designers were also artists who have been in or out of jail or who have died before their time.
Chalfant and Cooper, who both have worked extensively outside of graffiti in the world of photojournalism, situate these pictures of extravagant artwork within the backdrop of New York City’s crumbling financial standing in the 70’s. Within the book are pictures of graffiti set behind dilapidated buildings and vacant lots, and artists posing on dirty trains.
Of course, graffiti has been both condemned by visual art puritans like one trustee at the Museum of Modern Art who suggested graffiti writers “should be lined up at dawn and shot” and lauded by a Hip-Hop generation that has embraced it and accepted it as a viable medium of expression. But this collection of photographs, very respectably, is just about the artwork itself. The transcending can take place elsewhere.