Subway Art -- the legendary graffiti art book by Henry Chalfant and Martha Cooper -- has just recently been republished in a nice big coffee table hard cover version appropriately titled Subway Art: 25th Anniversary Edition. The book has never been out of print since its initial 1984 publication but this new anniversary edition is just jaw-droppingly amazing and a must-have for any graffiti fan.
Its much larger scale and new dimensions of 17" by 13" full-color spreads allow the crispy clear photos to fully come to life in their bright, beautiful colors and hence make them so much easier to fully appreciate.
The new edition of Subway Art also offers numerous never-before-seen photos from that late 70's / early 80's era of New York City when Cooper and Chalfant were documenting this vibrant and rampant illegal public transit art form; one that would be gone by the end of the decade in which the book was first published. But over the years Subway Art has taken on life of its own and the influential book has gone on to sell a staggering half a million copies.
I recently had the opportunity to sit down and talk with Henry Chalfant about this influential art book. A Stanford graduate who was first a sculptor, Chalfant has lived in New York City for many years and is now nearing 70. He is equally known in graffiti circles for his documentation of the art form via the book Spraycan Art which he co-authored with James Prigoff, and for Style Wars, the historic PBS documentary on New York graffiti that he co-produced with Tony Silver. Chalfant's work can be found in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. A few years ago he directed the excellent Latin and hip-hop themed documentary about the South Bronx, From Mambo to Hip Hop: A South Bronx Tale, that aired on PBS stations in 2006.
Amoeblog: So what was the timeline of when you and Martha Cooper were taking the pictures for the book Subway Art?
Henry Chalfant: Martha started in '78 when she met DONDI and I started a couple of years before that when I found out that the trains ran outside. Being an outsider, I didn't know, but when I was traveling up into the Bronx I was like "Oh wow they're outside on the elevated [platforms]. I can take pictures now!" Before that I would only see them in the tunnels and think it would be great to take pictures but they would look awful.
Amoeblog: You and Martha Cooper came from different backgrounds and also applied different approaches to photography, correct?
Henry Chalfant: Yes. Martha is a photo-journalist and had been a professional photographer for years and she was working on a series of stories about kids at play in New York in the city when they invent their own toys and she happened upon graffiti through that route. And I was an artist in New York, a sculptor, and I came upon it through an aesthetic admiration of the work that I was seeing as well as curiosity as to who was doing it. I had taken snap shots before but I picked up a camera basically to document this stuff. So my method was taking them in series, in sections and splicing them together. It was partly out of necessity because I was watching them from the train lines themselves from the station. And on the opposite platform from where the train would stop I had two tracks between me and where the trains would stop to take the picture. So that's how I would do it, whereas Martha took pictures from off the line and included in her single shot the background, the ambiance. We had different approaches. She would go out with her car and find spots on the street where she would have a good vantage point and I would always take the train. I would ride up in the morning through the Bronx. We both lived in the Upper West Side so the Bronx was the most convenient place for us, so a lot of Brooklyn writers would always be asking us, "What's up? How come you didn't do Brooklyn? What happened to the BMT's [the Brooklyn-Manattan Tranist]? Why did you always concentrate on the IRT's [Interborough Rapid Transit Company that runs from Manhattan to the Bronx]?" But it was really an accident of geography of where we lived and we were on the IRT line, both of us, and for the best light we would go up in the morning to the Bronx...and we had the sun over our backs and shining right on the pieces at rush hour. We could get everything.
Amoeblog: When did you first met Martha Cooper?
Henry Chalfant: In 1980. I had a photo show at OK Harris in SoHo. I had already heard about her because through the grapevine writers were telling me, "Yo, there's this lady out there who is taking pictures too." And she was hearing about me in the same light.
Amoeblog: So for a few years there you were simultaneously working on the Subway Art book with
Martha Cooper and on the Style Wars film with Tony Silver (R.I.P.)?
Henry Chalfant: Yeah, Tony and I started to make Style Wars in 1981 and Martha and I went to the Frankfurt Book Fair in 1982 and that's where we were able to get the book deal.
Amoeblog: Was it difficult trying to get a book on graffiti published when no such type of art book had existed before? What was the typical response from publishers at the time?
Henry Chalfant: Basically no. Martha and I tried both separately and together to try and get book deals in New York. What we did was, we went to the bookstores and looked at art books and said, "Oh this would be a good publisher." So we found several different publishers and we would go and have meeting with them and they all said no and for various excuses, but I think it was that they just didn't want to be involved in something that was so unpopular because it was quite unpopular the higher up you went in the echelons of culture, to the board of directors of the Museum of Modern Art and, you know, got worse and worse [from there].
Amoeblog: But on a more underground, closer to the downtown or street art world level back in the early 80's in New York City, what was the general attitude towards graffiti?
Henry Chalfant: Already there were little galleries springing up in lower Manhattan, and also up in the Bronx there was Fashion Moda [an alternative art space that ran from 1978-1993]. And this was already in 1981, 1982 and there was kind of a mix going on between downtown artists and Euro artists and local neighborhood artists who were generally graffiti writers and other people too. And that's when the writers got together. There were places like the [Patti Astor's] Fun Gallery downtown, and that was big hangout and it was quite wonderful because you would have the sort of glittery downtown scene and these kids from all over the city coming from all five boroughs to hang out together and it was quite interesting. I think there was a lot of learning going on from both ways.
Amoeblog: Knowing the impact Subway Art had on so many artists from when it was first published in 1984, how soon did you start to get feedback from those directly inspired by the book?
Henry Chalfant: Right away I started getting letters. And that's why I did Spraycan Art afterwards, because I got letters from all around. Because of the response to Subway Art, I thought this could be another book and James Prigoff had been urging me to join with him and do a book. He had done a lot of mural books and he wanted to do something on walls. And I said, "I don't know. It's not as interesting as trains." But then when I started getting these letters, I said, "Hey Jim, let's go and do the book."
Amoeblog: And of course, back in the 80's in the pre-Internet age, books and magazines showcasing graffiti art had more of an important role.
Henry Chalfant: Yeah, it was all print then. Books and magazines got the message out there. And when you think of the trains themselves; that was a big medium and a circulating medium. So I think that's why it reached the kind of critical mass and really took off, because it was on the trains. It wasn't local neighborhoods. And so kids all over the city were seeing this and they were saying, "OK, well, let me try it," and then there was a lot of networking going on in those days. You had writers from Brooklyn teaming up with writers from The Bronx and Manhattan so the old sort of gang turf thing was over. It changed into, well, people were jealous of their own yards and own lines. You could get into trouble that way, but overall this overrode the whole neighborhood territorial thing and people from all over the city were sort of mingling with one another.
Amoeblog: Do you think that, especially in these recessionary New York City times and with the MTA hurting for revenue/funding, that we might ever see a return to trains becoming covered in graffiti again?
Henry Chalfant: I think the MTA would gnaw off their right arm before they would allow that to happen. I think the memory of it is too close and a big humiliating thing to them, and they poured too much money into fixing it. I don't think that feeling has gone away. It would be politically very bad for them to allow it to reemerge. I don't think it's going to happen. It would be great if they actually invited people to do art, instead of putting ads on the train like they are now that are stupid to look at.
Amoeblog: Isn't it interesting if you go to the MTA Transit Museum over in Brooklyn or to the MTA museum shop in Grand Central how, out of all of the countless books and post cards and historic souvenirs, they have that not one includes anything from the transit system's graffiti period?
Henry Chalfant: Yeah, they pretend it doesn't exist.
Amoeblog: Subway Art has sold about half a million copies over the years, amazing for any art book, and all over the world. Did you ever envision such a response to this book, especially on a global level?
Henry Chalfant: Martha, who was a pro, said we'd be lucky if we sell a thousand of these, but we really want to have it, to have it in our hands, a book, a document. So that was sort of the general idea. They published 3000 to begin with and they just printed it in small increments over the years after that. But they were taken by surprise. It put [eminent illustrated books publisher] Thames & Hudson in a category that they had never worked in before, which was the trade paperback. And now it's a big moneymaker for them -- that whole area.
Amoeblog: And Chronicle Books out of San Francisco is publishing the new edition here in the States?
Henry Chalfant: Yes, Chronicle Books is doing it here. And again, it's Thames & Hudson doing it in Europe and they sold it to Chronicle Books here.
Amoeblog: The new 25 year anniversary edition is much bigger in size, but what are some of the differences between the new version and the original?
Henry Chalfant: The big difference is that we took out the text and devoted it to photographs and, of course, because the book is big, the photographs are huge now and there's not a lot of space taken up by text. We have a forward and an afterword where we comment on the whole thing, the phenomenon and that's that. The rest is just a big photo book. And they really did a good job on the color and the design of the book I think. And they still have the fold-outs of my montages with DONDI and Blade and others and they're bigger than they were then. And the book has more pages...and 70 extra images.