“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
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.
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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.