"The science of catching trains is perhaps not something you could ever learn in school. The trains ran in a fixed pattern and on a schedule so you could apply science to it."
Henry Chalfant has been called "unequivocally the most important person in the (subway art) movement". Were it not for his photographs of the subway trains, graffiti or spraycan art may have never become a global phenomenon.
Born in western Pennsylvania and trained as a sculptor, Chalfant began taking photos of graffiti on subway cars as a hobby in the mid-70s. After 1978, Chalfant began using a motor-drive on his camera. While standing in one spot, he could shoot entire cars on a flat angle. The photos presented the cars as if they had just pulled up to the station in their full glory.
Chalfant's photos quickly began to unleash aesthetic, social, and political shockwaves. First the photos revolutionized the way the young graf writers saw their works. When he opened his Grand Street studio, a veritable photo library of style, to them, he accidentally accelerated the aesthetic development of the form.
After a premiere exhibition at the OK Harris Gallery September 1980, his photos played a central role in both consolidating art-world interest in the street movement, and a citywide political battle over the issue of "vandalism". Three months later, Chalfant's photos graced a spirited cover story defense of the movement by the writer Richard Goldstein on the cover of the city's important alternative newspaper, the Village Voice.
Over the next two years, Chalfant became a mentor and advocate for the practitioners of the New York youth street cultures that would together become known as hip-hop. He was one of the first curators to bring b-boying, rapping, DJing, and graffiti together in a famously aborted show at a downtown performance space called the Common Ground in the spring of 1981 that nonetheless again made the cover of the Village Voice. With the publication of Subway Art, the seminal book on the art done with fellow graffiti photographer Martha Cooper, and the debut of "Style Wars", the still-revered documentary feature that he co-produced with director Tony Silver, hip-hop arts were suddenly available to the rest of the world.
After this period, New York City officials stepped up their "war on graffiti", eventually buffing the trains clean by 1989. Today, the subway system runs largely free of graffiti—although acid-based "scratchiti" can still be seen on many windows, some train tunnels are filled with tags and pieces, and writers still manage to slip into heavily guarded yards to bomb subway cars. Freight trains in North America, and rapid transit systems in Europe and around the world are now likelier targets of elder and young graffitists.
But although you can take the graffiti off the train, it seems you can't take the train out of graffiti. Subway art and the graffiti aesthetic are now seen as the foundation for a new generation's understanding of visual art—the influence is clear in painting, photography, sculpture, and graphic design. The influence of Chalfant's photographs, then, continues to expand over two decades later.
"Burners" is a fitting tribute to one of twentieth century art's most spontaneous, democratic, and joyous movements, and to the enduring genius of Henry Chalfant.
Jeff Chang, July 2006