“Jules Aarons, Morton Broffman, and Joe Conzo belong to an illustrious tradition of photographers deeply aware of their moment and surroundings who actively engaged with their communities to present their relative histories, capturing moments of social activism, and inspiring change,” observes Sergio Bessa, Director of Curatorial and Education Programs at The Bronx Museum of the Arts, which is hosting an exhibition of their work at the museum, now through June 14.
Collected together as “Three Photographers from the Bronx: Jules Aarons, Morton Broffman, and Joe Conzo,” the Museum presents a powerful selection of images that provide a dynamic look into the power of community on the local and national stages. The exhibition features over 80 works, from depictions of daily life in the Bronx and Far Rockaways in the early 1950s, to images of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, to a searing look at Bronx community protests in the early 1980s. Together these works create an exchange across three distinct and intertwined moments, exploring the legacy of community activism and urban change, and launching a dialogue surrounding the challenges the Bronx and similar communities continue to face today.
Born in the Bronx in 1921, Jules Aarons was both an acclaimed photographer and a Boston University physicist known for his street photography, which documents lively, informal, and emotional urban life, both in the Bronx and across the globe. The street portraits and documentary images selected for the exhibition provide an intimate look at the everyday life in the Bronx in the early 1950s when the Grand Concourse was known as “the Park Avenue of the working class.” From scenes of laundry hung on clotheslines running across the backyard to older women reading sitting in lawnchairs on the sidewalk, Aarons’ photographs perfect tableaus of mid-century urban life. His everyday man and woman, elegant in silent repose, remind us of the older generations that found comfort in the community as a whole.
Morton Broffman was a Washington, D.C.-based photographer whose work was informed by his commitment to civil rights. Born in 1928, Broffman died in 1992 of ALS and left behind a significant archive of images taken while covering the American Civil Rights Movement and the political and social changes of the 1960s, 70s and 80s. The works selected for the exhibition document the fight for social equality within the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, including depictions of the Selma to Montgomery March for Voting Rights in 1965, along with images of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at his final sermon at the Washington National Cathedral in 1968. Broffman beautiful captures the spirit and soul of King’s vision as reflecting in the people who stood by his side, whether Rev. Ralph Abernathy, James Baldwin, Ethel Kennedy, Joan Baez, or the countless men, women, and children who were moved by a call to action by Dr. King’s majestic word.
The final photographer of the triumvirate is Joe Conzo (b. 1963), who is known for his pioneering work documenting the rise of Hip Hop culture in the 1970s and 80s, which is now part of a permanent archive housed at Cornell University. Born and raised in the Bronx, Conzo attended the Agnes Russell School on the campus of Columbia University and continued his formal artistic education at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. During his early development, Conzo bore witness to New York’s Puerto Rican cultural music scene, as well as the volatile state of South Bronx community activism.
For the exhibition, curator Sergio Bessa selected Conzo’s politically charged series of photographs depicting the Committee Against Fort Apache, a grassroots movement within the Bronx that challenged the ethnic stereotypes and misrepresentation in the 1981 Hollywood studio film Fort Apache, The Bronx. Lead by Conzo’s grandmother, Dr. Evelina Antonetty, who was affectionately known as “The Hell Lady of the Bronx”, the people united to protest the exploitation of the borough during a time when it had been abandoned by the Federal, State, and City governments.
“We are a museum immersed in a borough with a social history that is often misunderstood or misrepresented,” said Holly Block, Executive Director of The Bronx Museum of Arts. “Through the work of these photographers, who document critical moments both in the Bronx and across the country, we will offer a new perspective on the history of urban and social change, and inform renewed conversations about the current state of civil rights, the nature of ‘community,’ and the impact of grassroots organizing.”
“Three Photographers from the Bronx” perfectly illustrates the Museum’s commitment to innovative contemporary art exhibitions, education programs, and cross-cultural dialogues. Since its founding in 1971, the Museum has played a vital role in the Bronx by helping to make art accessible to the entire community and connecting with local schools, artists, teens, and families through its robust education initiatives. In celebration of its 40th anniversary, the Museum implemented a universal free admission policy, supporting its mission to make arts experiences available to all audiences.
Sergio Bessa observes, “I am very pleased with how the show came about. I had been studying the Museum’s collection. We needed a stronger core for the image of the Bronx. I have been at the Museum for eleven years and feel strongly about the Bronx as a community. I began to focus on the Civil Rights work of Morton Broffman, and discovered he was from the Bronx. His son handled his archive and we began to have an exchange about showing the work.”
During that time, Bessa came across the work of Jules Aarons, who had been born just a few years after Broffman. They were from the same generation. Aarons was a physicist who went to Boston to study and work, but came back to the Bronx to visit his parents, who never left the borough. He photographed his family, his neighbors, and community. This familial vibe was complemented by Bessa’s selection of Broffman’s photographs, which did not focus on the violence of the Civil Rights movement, despite the selection of images of the police mobilizing to clear our residents of Resurrection City on the National Mall during the Poor People’s Campaign of June 1968.
Rather, the protest scenes reveal the power of community to unite against the powers that be and drive the system towards greater accountability. Demanding all power to all the people, it was the people of the Bronx who stood their ground and fought back against the crass commercialization of the Hollywood machine. As Bessa notes, “Joe Conzo brings the issues of family and community to everything he does. He took these photographs when he was just a teenager.
“I was always struck by how the Bronx was a bustling community in the 1930s, 40s, and the 50s. During the Vietnam War, people began to leave the Bronx and the neighborhoods no longer felt safe. I took a lot of pride in the fact that many people did not leave during the 1970s, during the chaos of the fires and the drugs. They wanted to reverse the tide and created a brand new culture in Hip Hop. Hip Hop was a very positive force and it showed that the community was vibrant and strong. People were doing it to have fun here. I love that.
“The Bronx was demonized in the media. Joe Conzo’s photographs remind us how Hollywood will marginalize blacks and Latinos unless the people stand up for themselves. These are photographs of a community not giving up. This is such an amazing example at this moment, when you see what Detroit is going through right now.
“Writing and photography bring people together. People identify themselves in the photographs. They have great stories and great narratives. People come from all over to The Bronx Museum of the Arts and say, ‘I relate to this.’ It fills my heart.”