While the era of graffiti-coated trains may have passed, Henry Chalfant’s photographs of New York City’s outlawed art remain. Filled edge-to-edge with the steel canvas creations, the images capture the master graffiti works that covered entire swaths of train cars in Krylon during the 1970s and 80s.
These images fill the gallery walls of the exhibition “Henry Chalfant: Art vs. Transit, 1977-1987,” now on view at the Bronx Museum through March 8, 2020. The title is a nod to a volatile dichotomy between the city, which declared a “War on Graffiti” in 1972, and the artists at the heart of Chalfant’s work. Highlighting the skill behind the city-condemned pieces, the show highlights work from graffiti writers such as Blade, Crash and DAZE, while also displaying selections from Chalfant’s street photography of the burgeoning New York hip-hop scene. The first retrospective of the artist’s work in the U.S., the exhibition also includes images of the trains blown up to life-scale, bringing the cars back from the dead to renewed admiration.
Chalfant began photographing graffiti on trains in the 1970s, shortly after moving to New York. Poised with a 35 mm camera, the photographer would position himself atop an outdoor subway platform and shoot the cars as they came in to the station. In order to document the entire length of the work, Chalfant would take overlapping shots that he would later splice together to create a panoramic vision of the graffiti.
As time went on and he gained the trust of artists, Chalfant would receive calls tipping him off to new works. Because the pieces would last a short period of time, sometimes getting erased or vandalized within a day, the images taken by Chalfant — and Martha Cooper, who collaborated with the photographer to produce the touchstone book “Subway Art” — helped to bring a larger audience to the form.
“You can’t imagine how interesting it was because it was mysterious and you really didn’t know who was doing it,” Chalfant said in an archival interview. “And it was new and you couldn’t believe that people were actually getting into the tunnels, or wherever they did it, for enough time and that nobody could catch them.”
Though the city now only sees the occasional appearance of a graffiti-doused train, like the Halloween treat spotted in the Bronx in October, the works preserved in Chalfant’s archives persist as a reminder of the formal innovation at play.
“Henry Chalfant: Art vs. Transit, 1977-1987” is on view at the Bronx Museum through March 8, 2020. More information about admissions and special programming around the exhibition can be found here.
Top Image: Photo: Henry Chalfant. Courtesy: Eric Firestone Gallery, New York.