When Henry Chalfant arrived in New York City from suburban Pittsburgh in 1973, as an aspiring sculptor, he found a place teetering on the verge of bankruptcy. This was “Ford to City: Drop Dead” New York. But amid the turmoil a new form of art making was taking shape — one that took up space where it could, which was mostly everywhere.
As a typographical language, graffiti was still raw, a new kind of American expressionism rooted in the volatility of street life, largely done by kids living on the city’s margins. The urgent scrawls of names, crowding one another for visual dominance, was a form of branding as self-determination. Within a few years, styles became increasingly baroque, entire flanks of subway cars sheathed in florid top-down murals, hurtling the city’s overlooked periphery into its pulsing center.
Mr. Chalfant, now 79, credits one such piece, a Lee Quiñonesburner from 1977, for permanently shifting his attention. “I came up to the Bronx, and I saw two cars painted by Lee and the Fabulous Five crew,” Mr. Chalfant said in a recent interview. “And I thought, Oh my god, I have to get that.” And he did, though it took 10 pictures. “From there I knew I was going to see this out,” he added. “I found the contrast between what I was doing as a solitary studio artist and what I clearly needed in my life, which was more engagement in the world, and this is how I found it.”
For the next seven years, Mr. Chalfant photographed the trains. And by the time he stopped shooting, around 1984, he had amassed a body of work considered to be the definitive document of graffiti culture in New York. Now those photographs are the subject of the exhibition “Henry Chalfant: Art vs. Transit, 1977-1987,” at the Bronx Museum of the Arts. His train panoramas, some blown up to train car-size, have been assembled here alongside his street photography of park jams and wall works, and a collection of archives and black books that recreate his SoHo studio.
It’s an apt homecoming for Mr. Chalfant’s first United States retrospective — the site of much of New York graffiti’s innovation, where many graffiti artists lived and where the bulk of Mr. Chalfant’s imagery was produced.
The show’s title, “Art vs. Transit,” is a reference to the open hostility of the city’s officials toward what they deemed to be vandalism as well as the sometimes combative stance graffiti writers took among themselves. Graffiti’s parameters developed with serious stakes, a kind of one-upmanship expressed through art. It was also the original title, Mr. Chalfant said, of his influential 1984 photography book, “Subway Art,” which he published with Martha Cooper, who was also documenting the early stages of hip-hop culture from street level.
Up to that point, galleries had expressed only a trickling interest in graffiti art — even less in the photography of it. “It was hard for us to get the book published,” Mr. Chalfant recalled at the museum recently. “We both tried separately and competed, and failed, and tried together and failed. We went to all these publishers and none were interested. They said, ‘Well, there’s been one,’ referring to the one in 1974 [“The Faith of Graffiti”] that Norman Mailer wrote the introduction to. So we went to Europe and right away Thames & Hudson said this is wonderful.”
As an art form, graffiti was, and in many ways remains, better received in Europe. Mr. Quiñones had his first gallery exhibition, in 1979, in Rome. “Subway Art,” along with the 1984 PBS documentary “Style Wars,” which Mr. Chalfant produced with Tony Silver, is credited with propelling graffiti’s global reach. It’s not uncommon, in Barcelona or Berlin or Copenhagen, to see trains adorned with freshly painted pieces. The Bronx show was first exhibited in 2018 in Madrid, conceived by the Spanish graffiti artist SUSO33, who has called Mr. Chalfant “the most important ambassador of graffiti culture in the world.” During its run, over a thousand people visited it every day.
“I think Europe has always been receptive to American popular culture in general, and to American art forms very enthusiastically,” Mr. Chalfant said. “African-American writers and artists went there and discovered the racial atmosphere was different, and they felt more comfortable. I know a number of Americans who followed in their footsteps: Sharp, Jon One, Core. Europeans in general consider art a profession like any other, where Americans still have a kind of romantic idea about it.”
To make his pictures, Mr. Chalfant would find a perch on the outdoor subway platforms that afforded him the best light, usually Intervale Avenue and East Tremont on the 2 and 5 lines. He would shoot the painted cars as they shuttled past, taking multiple exposures in rapid succession and later collaging them to create perfect panoramic records. He approached his subject anthropologically, stalking the uptown platforms in the mornings and the downtown side in the afternoons, sometimes waiting hours for a particular train to loop around.
Mr. Chalfant’s photography froze the trains in place, but not the kinetic energy of the art. By isolating each work, he confirmed its individualism. Graffiti writers appreciated this, and Mr. Chalfant befriended many of them, eventually. He may have felt “alienated from my own privileged, white life in a country club community outside Pittsburgh,” Mr. Chalfant said, but he was still viewed as an outsider by the mostly black and Latin graffiti artists in the Bronx.
“We didn’t really know what to make of him, if he was a police officer or why anyone else would be interested in documenting the work we were doing,” said Chris Ellis, the graffiti artist who works as Daze. He was 17 when he met Mr. Chalfant in 1979. “He invited us to his studio and he had these portfolios of photos. It was really incredible for us to see, in 35 millimeter format, our work.” Soon, writers began to call Mr. Chalfant the night they finished a piece so he would know where to look come morning.
He has since endeared himself to residents of the Bronx, and has devoted his professional career to telling their stories. “When I was shooting in the Bronx I spent a lot of time just hanging out in the stations, and you could hear the sound of the street and smell the aroma of coffee and cuchifritos coming up. I felt comfortable here.”
Outside of their artfulness, Mr. Chalfant’s pictures stand as a major act of urban historical preservation. Graffiti, which was ephemeral to begin with, liable to be whitewashed, buffed, or defaced, was mostly obliterated by the mid-1980s. The city has changed considerably in the intervening years. Graffiti persists on the odd box truck and pull-down gate, but has otherwise completely vanished from the subway.
Graffiti’s outlaw tint has also dissipated, its day colored by nostalgia and its stylistic cues long since co-opted by advertising. The influential works of the ’70s and ’80s — the genesis of a wholly original American art form — largely survive now only in Mr. Chalfant’s archives. “His body of work is indispensable,” Mr. Ellis said. “He’s enabled future generations to be able to experience this work. If it wasn’t for Henry, it would only exist in memories.”