Vintage Snapshots Of Growing Up In The Bronx

“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 … 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.” —Stephen Shames

Rafael, 13, jumps from one building to the next, eight stories up (1977). © Stephen Shames / Polaris

A 1977 assignment for Look magazine took award-winning photographer Stephen Shames to the Bronx, where he began photographing a group of boys coming of age in what was at the time one of the toughest and poorest neighborhoods in the United States.

Teenage boys jump into a public swimming pool at night. They climbed over the fence (1984). © Stephen Shames / Polaris

Teenage couple kisses on steps (1982). © Stephen Shames / Polaris

Two teens wear stocking masks they use to hide their identity when they rob people, Bathgate Avenue (1982). © Stephen Shames / Polaris

Teenage boy with M-16 (1985). © Stephen Shames / Polaris

The Bronx boys lived on streets ravaged by poverty, drugs, violence, and gangs. They bonded together and raised themselves in ‘crews,’ adolescent families they created for protection and companionship.

Two teenage boys at a party: one with an intense expression on his face; the other wearing a hooded sweatshirt and his mouth covered (1990s). © Stephen Shames / Polaris






This image is graphic

Click to reveal


View this image ›

A friend helps 15-year-old Del shoot heroin on the roof (1982). © Stephen Shames / Polaris

© Stephen Shames / Polaris

Dealer sells crack in front of a building as moms sit with their babies and children play (1987–88). © Stephen Shames / Polaris

Shames’ empathy for the boys earned their trust and respect, and over the next two decades, as the crack cocaine epidemic devastated the neighborhood, they allowed him extraordinary access into their lives on the street and in their homes.

© Stephen Shames / Polaris

Man blows smoke rings next to elementary school age kid in pool hall (1980). © Stephen Shames / Polaris

“Pilo Wall.” Teenage boy with toy gun. His son is at left. Two teens kiss (1985). © Stephen Shames / Polaris

Shames captures the brutality of the times — the fights, shootings, arrests, and drug deals — that eventually left many of the young men dead or in jail. But he also records the joy and humanity of the Bronx boys, as they mature, fall in love, and have children of their own.

Martin eats ice cream bar as he hangs out with friends (1982). © Stephen Shames / Polaris

Poncho and Tony cool off in water from the pump (fire hydrant) on a hot summer night (1987–88). © Stephen Shames / Polaris

Two teenage boys wear Mexican hats as they drink inside a social club. Batgate Avenue (1984). © Stephen Shames / Polaris

Challenging our perceptions of a neighborhood that at the time these photographs were made was too easily dismissed by some as irredeemable, Bronx Boys shows us that hope and redemption is possible everywhere.

Sixteen-year-old Poncho and his girlfriend (1991). © Stephen Shames / Polaris

Teenage boys and adults play dominoes (1985). ©Stephen Shames / Polaris

Thirteen-year-old Martin flirts with a girl. Decatur Avenue (1982). © Stephen Shames / Polaris

Today they are successful businessmen, married with grown children. [Martin] Dones is an executive at a national food company. [José “Poncho”] Muñoz owns his own business and still lives in the Bronx. They attribute Shames’ mentoring to making a difference in their lives.

Martin and Poncho celebrate at a birthday party for a crew member (1987–88). © Stephen Shames / Polaris

All images are copyright Stephen Shames from the book Bronx Boys and published by University of Texas Press.

See more of Stephen’s work here and at Steven Kasher Gallery in New York from Nov. 6 through Nov. 15, 2014.

There will be a book signing and opening reception with Stephen Shames (and some of the Bronx Boys, including Martin Dones and José “Poncho” Muñoz), on Thursday, Nov. 6, from 6–8 p.m.

Read more:

Related Posts

Add Comment