Books | Stephen Shames: Bronx Boys
Photo: © Stephen Shames
By 1977, the Bronx had been reduced to shell of its former self, the glorious grandeur of earlier days replaced by the devastating effects of “benign neglect,” New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s political policy that advised complete abandonment of inner cities populated by minorities. As New York teetered along the brink of bankruptcy, the Bronx was laid bare, resembling nothing so much as a battlefield.
As the Bronx burned, the headlines heated up and the mainstream media sent reporters and photographers to find stories. That year, Stephen Shames took an assignment for Look magazine and began photographing a group of boys at a time and a place that looked like a war zone, with burned out buildings framed by abandoned lots of rubble. The boys banded together in gangs and crews, dealing with the cycle of violence that poverty causes, and it was this band, this tribe if you will, that welcomed Shames to the block.
The bond between photographer and subject can be deeply spiritual. It is a bond beyond words, a bond made in the silent knowing of the eyes. Photography is a way of looking, and a way of being seen. It is a complicit agreement between two parties in the creation of the image. It is the image that exists, ultimately, and the desire to create, to record, and to share for posterity.
Shames created a connection with his subjects that was so profound that he returned to the block over the next two decades, photographing the boys as they came of age. From this extended series of work, Shames has produced Bronx Boys (University of Texas Press), with texts by two of the subjects in the book, Martin Dones and José “Poncho” Muñoz.
Bronx Boys takes us back to a time and a place that has all but disappeared from the streets of New York today. This is the New York of deep poverty that became the epicenter for the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s. In Shames’ photographs we watch some of these boys grow to men, while other die trying to survive the most violent eras in New York history.
As Shames writes in the book, “Often I am terrified of the Bronx. Other times it feels like home. My images reflect the feral vitality and hope of these young men. The interplay between good and evil, violence and love, chaos and family, is the theme, but this is not documentation. There is no story line. There is only a feeling.”
It is this feeling, this sensitivity to the spirit of the people that he photographs, that imbues Shames’ work with the ability to transport you into the moment as it was. In his work you sense the pleasure and the pain of life that Martin Dones’ essay explicitly describes. Dones’ text does not mince words, and the cumulative effect of the tragedies he endures will leave the vein of your temple throbbing. Yet it is by virtue of Dones’ stories that we can begin to perceive the depths to which Shames has gone to bring us Bronx Boys.
Bronx Boys by Stephen Shames is published by University of Texas Press, get it now on Amazon.
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.