July 23, 2010

Subway Art
25th Anniversary Edition

by Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant | Chronicle Books
Review by Christopher Luna
(This review originally appeared in Rain Taxi Review of Books, Volume 14, Number 4)

Subway Art book coverThe oversized 25th Anniversary Edition of Subway Art, an influential survey of 1970s and 1980s graffiti by photographers Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant, offers a look at a New York City that no longer exists, as well as a sumptuous introduction to a style of painting that continues to inspire subsequent generations of graffiti writers, fine artists and musicians.

This new version of the book adds a plethora of images and includes a new introduction and afterword featuring the couple’s reflections on the project and their role in documenting a crucial period in street art history.

Chalfant and Cooper’s individual approaches to shooting the trains complemented one another nicely. As Cooper explains, her partner preferred “shooting the graffiti and eliminating the context,” while her background in anthropology led her to pay more attention to the surrounding architecture and street life. Her photographs include the artists in action, and a generous sampling of the clothing, hairstyles and look of New York during this time period.

In 1977, Cooper worked as a staff photographer for the New York Post: “I began driving through the Lower East Side on my way back to the paper every day to see what I could find and to finish up the roll of film in my camera before developing it.” She eventually took an interest in the children she encountered “building clubhouses, making go-carts from scrap, or jumping on mattresses.” One of these children shared his sketchbook with her and suggested that she photograph graffiti.

She was soon introduced to Dondi, who “generously described the complicated process of painting a train, from design to paint procurement to yards entry to execution. He taught me graffiti terminology and introduced me to other writers.” Cooper’s interest in graffiti grew, and a few years later, she and Chalfant began working together.

Some of the most striking images in the book are the full-page strips that feature Chalfant’s layered train car photos. He made use of the places where the trains were stopped during the weekend to get a series of still shots that he would combine in order to include the entire train in the picture. As Chalfant explains, “To photograph one subway car idling on the station platform, I would shoot four or five overlapping pictures. I had to be agile to position myself opposite the desired car and take the photos, moving fifteen feet or so between each shot in the few moments when the train paused in the station.”

According to Chalfant, he most frequently set up at the Intervale Avenue station, “on the 2 and 5 lines in the Bronx, (which) is perfectly situated with respect to the morning sun. It’s located on a trestle that once soared over a valley of burned-out buildings, the ruins of the Ghetto Brothers’ clubhouse, and the last operating synagogue in the South Bronx. No buildings rise to appear in the background view, which made for a cleaner splice when I put together the photos together in my studio.”

At first the response to the book was less than enthusiastic. Even in the art world, many saw graffiti as a crime and blight on the city. Eventually, the prestigious art publisher Thames & Hudson agreed to issue the book in an edition of 5,000 copies. At the time that the book was first published in 1984, neither Cooper nor Chalfant “expected that graffiti would become a worldwide phenomenon.”

The photos and stories about early graffiti writers such as BLADE, Lady Pink, and Seen provide a window on a pre-Giuliani New York, before the entire subway fleet was replaced with “shiny Bombardiers from Canada and Kawasakis from Japan, which were treated with a smooth polyurethane coating” that repelled spray paint, as Chalfant explains in his afterword. The writing came to be known as Wild Style, and featured elaborate, vibrant lettering, cartoonish figures, clouds, skulls, and sardonic messages such as “HOPE I DON’T HAVE TO BE A JERK AND GO TO WORK.” Later, after the trains were replaced, “the social life of benching would be replaced by photo exchanges, and later by the Internet.”

Both photographers’ lives were changed by the experience. Chalfant left the studio and devoted his life and career to documenting street life, most notably in the film Style Wars. Many of the artists achieved great fame. Interestingly, Chalfant has sympathy for those who bemoan the criminal aspects of graffiti. However, “our experience belies that bleak view. We have found that the skills, concentration, dedication, striving for excellence, and, indeed, the work ethic acquired through an apprenticeship in the train yards have in most cases led to successful careers ranging from the fine arts to graphic, clothing, and cyber design.”

Subway Art is a beautiful and important cultural document of a generation of artists who embodied the spirit of the city before it was Disneyfied. Young artists and those who miss the New York that was will find this re-release something to celebrate.