PHOTOBOOK REVIEWS, INTERVIEWS AND WRITE-UPS
ALONG WITH THE LATEST PHOTO-EYE NEWS

Social Media

Book Review: Bronx Boys


Book Review Bronx Boys By Stephen Shames Reviewed by Tom Leininger “I am not here, just be you.”

Stephen Shames repeated that phrase many times to a group of young men growing up in the Bronx as he documented their lives. Jose “Poncho” Munoz writes in the book Bronx Boys about how Shames was always around “doing pictures” and reminding them to just be themselves.

Bronx Boys. By Stephen Shames. 
University of Texas Press, 2014.
 
Bronx Boys
Reviewed by Tom Leininger

Bronx Boys
By Stephen Shames
University Of Texas Press, Austin, 2014. 224 pp., 123 duotone illustrations, 6¾x9".


“I am not here, just be you.”

Stephen Shames repeated that phrase many times to a group of young men growing up in the Bronx as he documented their lives. Jose “Poncho” Munoz writes in the book Bronx Boys about how Shames was always around “doing pictures” and reminding them to just be themselves. His pictures capture just that, but what he witnessed also reflects the complicated nature of their lives.

The project started in 1977 as an assignment for the now defunct Look magazine. Shames spent 20 years off and on in the Bronx recording difficult, tender and occasionally lighter moments. Life starts in the street and winds into a group of boys lives; drugs, sex, violence, humor, and sadness. Once he was accepted into this group, Shames made images that are up close and personal. Energy and emotion come through in grainy and rich shades of black, white and grey. The vibrant feelings of those particular moments jump out of the pictures.

Bronx Boys. By Stephen Shames. University of Texas Press, 2014.

Stephen Shames’ career has been built on photographing those whose voice is overlooked due to lack of money or political power. This book adds to what he has created. His tenacity of connection and dedication to sticking with this group of boys as their lives changed allows for their humanity to be seen. While all of their choices might not have been the best, Shames does not judge them, but just records their lives. He presents what they did with the hand they were dealt.

Bronx Boys. By Stephen Shames. University of Texas Press, 2014.
Bronx Boys. By Stephen Shames. University of Texas Press, 2014.

One of the more tender pictures in the book is of Martin Dones smiling at a girl through a window in a doorway. Though separated by scratched glass, the complicated emotions of attraction are clearly on each face. Recording this moment took patience on the part of Shames because it is clear that they are just hanging out. Many of the pictures come from these times where little was going on, but Shames is able to elevate the everyday into something universal.

Dones writes an essay at the end of the book filling in details we don’t see in the pictures. One thing that becomes clear is the boys created a family for themselves because their parents were not always present. The quiet image of the boys stretched out on a bed near a window, relaxing and smoking shows how close they were.  This picture is an idyllic pause in the book before the times turn darker.  Fighting, drug use, violence, emptiness follow. It is a quiet intimate picture, while others are louder and chaotic. The boys had a moment, then it all changed. That’s one of many feelings I get from this picture.

Bronx Boys. By Stephen Shames. University of Texas Press, 2014.

In the brief introduction Shames describes the project not as documentation or narrative but as a feeling. Creating this book with a non-linear arc allows those reflected feelings come through clearly. The movement backwards and forwards in time can be confusing, but forcing a clean constructed narrative would take some energy out of the stories being told. Martin Dones’ essay brings some structure to the pictures with the detailed narrative of his life. Once I started reading what he went through I could not put the book down. His honesty makes you wonder how he made out of that time alive. Many died; that is a common theme throughout the book. What they went through, surviving during the late 70s and 80s, was not easy, and seeing its depiction in the book can be a challenge to process, but in the end, their humanity allows for connection.

Bronx Boys. By Stephen Shames. University of Texas Press, 2014.


Work like this is not made as often as it once was due to changes in the magazine and newspaper markets. It is not easy to sustain a project over a 20-year period, but Stephen Shames has made a living making pictures like this. Bronx Boys is the kind of book that is poetic, raw and difficult all at once.—TOM LEININGER


TOM LEININGER is a photographer and educator based in North Texas. More of his work can be found on his website.


Read More Book Reviews

No comments:

Post a Comment