Q&A: Stephen Shames


Bronx Boys Introduction by Stephen Shames.

The Bronx has a terrible beauty— stark and harsh—like the desert. At first glance you imagine nothing can survive. Then you notice life going on all around. People adapt, survive, and even prosper in this urban moonscape of quick pleasures and false hopes.

In the 1700s Thomas Hobbes described life in a state of nature as “continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”. Life is still that way in The Bronx.

I took my first photos, at John Durniak’s request, for Look Magazine in 1977. Look died while I was on assignment. I continued for two decades, sometimes staying on the block for weeks at a time, sometimes visiting only once or twice a year.

These are pictures of friends I met as children who became my family, as well as, people who stepped in front of my camera once and disappeared forever. I watched my friends grow up, fall in love, have children of their own. The boys in the original “crews” are now in their forties—their children are becoming adults. A few, including my two Godsons, have made it; many others are dead or in jail.

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 are the themes—but this is not a documentation. There is no “story line”. There is only a feeling.

Have you recently been living by any life philosophy? No. I am just living. What is the most complicated meal you can think of? Cabbage rolls. In a movie about your life which actor would play you? Nick Nolte. Who would you most like to see embarrass themselves? Investment Bankers. What is it that interests you about photography? Being able to go anywhere, do anything, especially being able to enter other lives. If your photographs could talk, what would most of them say? Oy vey. What Was The Last Crime You Witnessed? Computer “geniuses” causing “creative destruction” of people’s lives and the rich escaping taxes. Name a design flaw in the human body. Producing waste products. Describe the most important photo you’ve seen. Impossible for me to choose. There are too many important photos out there from Manuel Alvarez Bravo’s sensual nudes to Charles Moore’s alarming Birmingham images. What is the worst thing about city life? The noise. What part of the planet would you like to explore? Souteast Asia & Oceana. Describe your generation. My generation of “baby boomers” were the first generation to – as a group – confront and reject the basic tenant of American racism. As a group whites of my generation rejected white superiority. We had black heroes. As a group blacks of my generation developed the concept of black power. They believed that civil rights –equality under the law – was not enough; that blacks needed access to power. My generation in the 1960s questioned blinded obedience to authority and brought a breath of freedom to the world.

What relationship advice do you have for us? Focus on the long term. Glide over (and ignore) all the little bumps along the way. Describe A Cheap Thrill. Marijuana. Ultimate Camera? Leica M4. Most Used Camera? Canon 5D. Choose a song to play over a montage of everything you did today. The Well Tempered Clavier (No.1 in C major, Prelude) by Bach. Is There Something Wrong With Kids Today, And If So, What? Kids today are self-centered and materialistic. I guess we were too, but some of us matured. Maybe some of them will, too. Pick An Historic Moment From The Last Hundred Years To Bring A Camera To. When Churchill met with Roosevelt at the White House during World War II. Which Talent Would You Most Like To Have? Be able to compose music. Name a quality about the opposite sex that you find unattractive. Can’t think of anything. It’s all good. What will baffle future generations about our day and age? How we hurtled toward planetary disaster, while never missing a discount shopping day. What is your plan for the next 24 hours? To chill.

These photographs are from my next book, Bronx Boys, to be published by the University of Texas Press in October, 2014. It is a story of a group of young men growing up with drugs and violence; yet surviving and growing stronger.