"VAMPIN' BOYZ" - The HUB, South Bronx, 1989.
Three South Bronx boys vamp and vie for the attention of my lens in the commercial district of The HUB shortly after school let out on a snowy day in 1989.
THREE YOUNG FRIENDS of middle-school age walked past me accompanied by what I've long called the 'noise storm,' where a group of young people talk over each other so loudly in order to gain each other's attention that the result is a wash of white noise that seems to come from many more participants than are actually present -- and because I was lost in a creative fog at the time, these three seemed more like ten. I had set out on this brisk afternoon to the retail district known as The HUB, located in the Melrose section of the South Bronx, to document the leftover partisan propaganda and signage of the recent Mayoral race where David Dinkins had bested Rudolph Giuliani, and this was an unwanted distraction among the day's snow flurries (we would subsequently have a White Thanksgiving later in the month).
Annoyed by the sudden shrill, I turned my attention past them. After a beat, one of the boys yelled out to me: "Hey, mister, take MY picture!" As I turned to the boy, he jumped in front of me and immediately assumed that in-your-face bravado-boy stance that was so common on the street in those days because of hip-hop and the rappers they wanted to emulate. Why not, I thought: the quicker I took the snap the faster I'd get rid of them and return to the task at hand. As I raised the camera to my eye, another boy lurched into the composition. I popped off a few frames and a third boy managed to wedge his arm in and flash a peace sign just before I stopped shooting. The trio thanked me, asked when they would be 'in the paper,' and continued eastbound toward Brook and St. Ann's Avenues as if nothing had happened, the dust-up of jokes and jockeying trailing off into the distance.
Turned off by the momentary intrusion, I decided to wrap it up for the day and went uptown to process the day's rolls of film. After developing the film, I took a dinner break and crashed. The next morning I returned to the negatives that had dried over night, cut them them into six-frame strips, and made contact sheets for the batch. This is where you're expecting me to say "I WAS BLOWN AWAY" by what I found -- but honestly, I wasn't. Nothing immediately stood out about the series or any of the other shots on that roll. I did note the interesting tangle created by the boys in frame #14 on the back of the contact sheet before taping the envelope with the negatives to it for archiving (yes, that was my method of organizing negatives back then that were slated to be 'set aside'). And set aside in the confines of a dry darkness they sat - for almost thirty-years.
Three decades later, I rediscovered the series as I prepared for an exhibit. Today "Vampin' Boyz' is one of my favorite, as it captures a certain bolster and 'machismo' that South Bronx youth -- especially young boys -- learn to carry in their back pockets early as a facade for survival and acceptance, to be pulled out at a moment's notice like an Athenian Thespis flipping between comedy and tragedy. It's a gift that only children that grow up in downtrodden communities have down pact. And I must say that I have never seen a Bronx boy pull the wrong mask at the wrong time, ever. They are masters of the craft.
I learned an important lesson on that day in my growth as a documentary photographer: never ignore an opportunity to capture a moment simply because it wasn't the kind of image you set out to make on any given day. Keep an open eye -- and mind -- and shoot everything that is offered up by the photo Gods, especially when it's being served up on a silver platter. AND don't ever toss a shot before having some time to live with it and reviewing it again some time later with fresh eyes (not 30-years, but you know what I mean). This is especially true in today's age of digital photography where it's all too tempting to press that 'delete' or 'trash' feature whenever an image seems suspect or doesn't live up to your own preconceived hype. Learn to slow down a bit.
I also learned not to be dismissive of adolescents, after all, I was there once, too. And besides, these three were loud but quite polite and respectful; they were just kids being kids. In retrospect, I always knew it was I who should have thanked them, not the other way around. So I'll do it now: THANKS for the image and lesson boyz. Perhaps we'll meet again some day and I'll get the opportunity to say it in person.
WHERE ARE THEY NOW?