‘Born in the Bronx’ – Joe Conzo’s Life, Story and Business

HUB street festival circa 1980 (Photo courtesy of Joe Conzo)

It’s hard to remember a time when everyone wasn’t busily snapping away photos on their cell phones, a time when, if the right person wasn’t there to take pictures, the images and events unfolding were forever lost to history. It’s impossible to say exactly how many people in the 1970s South Bronx had cameras, but – arguably – no rolls of film so well preserved the era as those of Joe Conzo, Jr.

His name is well-known among locals, hip hop heads and old school New Yorkers alike. His photography is so imitated and intrinsic to the time that it feels familiar even if you’ve never heard of Joe Conzo. “It’s relentless work, for years now he’s been doing this,” fellow photographer of that era Ricky Flores says of Conzo’s body of work. In part, Conzo’s relentlessness comes from the lack of a dividing line between work and play – the subjects of his photos are often friends and family. “He has a very intimate community with the people that he’s photographing,” according to Flores, “He’s not from the outside coming in.”

Lil Roy eating an ice cream, circa 1980 (photo courtesy of Joe Conzo)

Conzo’s photography has become a lasting legacy for the Bronx, so much so, says Flores, that many are convinced the South Bronx today still looks like it does in Conzo’s decades-old photos. “They come looking for those abandoned buildings, they come looking for that landscape,” Flores says – but of course, the South Bronx has changed since Conzo, now 54, was growing up there. Yet his photography still stands as compelling documentation of the baby days of hip hop and a culture that has since become international. “People have taken that whole culture – hip hop, graffiti, dance – and made it their own,” Flores says not with bitterness but simple reflection, “They’ve taken everything that we’ve built and shaped it and rebuilt it into all situations where they come from.”

Conzo was recently honored at LaGuardia Community College as part of a Latinx Committee Hispanic Heritage celebration, and an exhibit of his photos are on view through Oct. 31 at the LaGuardia Community College Shenker Hall (M-building) lobby. Journalist Hannah Frishberg got a chance to chat with Joe about his legacy, about being a working artist in NYC and about the origins of his online store, “Born in the Bronx Shop“. This interview was conducted in May and has been edited for clarity.

What do you miss most about the Bronx you grew up in?

The family-ness, the togetherness. You knew who your neighbors were, you knew who lived up on the 5th floor, the 3rd floor. We all looked out for each other. I remember numerous times my mother, who raised five kids herself, would need food and knock on the neighbor’s door and there’d be food for us.

You just don’t see that no more today. Everything is iPad, iPhone, Insta this, Insta that; nobody is aware of their surroundings. Everyone’s in their own world or cocoon.

Do you still live in the Bronx?

Still live in the Bronx, still live in the Bronx, probably will end up dying here in the Bronx, even though I’d love to retire to Barcelona. I’m up in Norwood, by Gun Hill.

Do you think the Bronx will be able to retain its character, or do you think gentrification is going to redefine the area and strip it of its history?

Gentrification is a huge thing that’s going on, but I might be the wrong person to ask about gentrification, because we did it to the Jews. When the Hispanic population migrated from Puerto Rico in the ‘40s and ‘50s to the Lower East Side and then up to the Bronx, we pushed the Jews out of the Grand Concourse. In my building for years they had mezuzah on the walls, on the doors. So Co-op City was built for all the people we pushed out, and then we pushed them out of Co-op City.

Got a light? At 3rd Ave. and 149th St. in the South Bronx (Photo courtesy of Joe Conzo)

Is gentrification a rite of passage? Is it wrong? I still believe in the mom and pop stores, but big business is big business. I just don’t like it when we lose our culture, because you can’t get nothing in Harlem anymore, so you go to “SoBro” and things are being gobbled up there at an alarming late. We’re being pushed out.

How do you feel the gentrification of the Bronx has been different than the gentrification of Brooklyn?

I guess it’s the same. I go down to Brooklyn from time to time for events. There’s nothing left of Brooklyn.

The photo of the burned out buildings and the giant Puerto Rican flag – today, does that photo make you nostalgic, sad or what?

That was taken on Charlotte Street, the poster child of the South Bronx at the time. Where Hollywood would come to make films about World War II because it reminded them of bombed out Berlin. So the locals put up this huge, three-story Puerto Rican flag on the building.

Charlotte St., circa 1977

It’s nostalgic, because that’s part of our history. I just came back from eight days of touring in France. I had two shows out in France – one in the south, one in the north. They still use “le Bronx”, which is in reference to our neighborhood in the ‘70s, whenever they’re describing something dirty or broken down. But it’s nostalgic because that was my playground growing up. I knew nothing more than the abandoned buildings.

What movie do you think best captures that authentic Bronx flavor?

I would have to say Fort Apache, The Bronx. One of my most iconic images and one of the first images I ever sold was Paul Newman on the set of Fort Apache. I have a lot of shots of us protesting the movie. [Movie management] came to my grandmother and asked to rent out her childcare center in a bunch of buildings so all these stars could rest their heads between shooting. They promised all these jobs, and this, that and the other. She said sure, can you show me the script? And [then] she said hell no: All the blacks and Hispanics are displayed as pimps and murderers. And she helped form a group of ex-Young Lords called CAFA – Committee Against Fort Apache – and they demonstrated against the movie.

Skate Key in Mott Haven, circa 1981 (Photo courtesy of Joe Conzo)

It was a huge win. If you pop in the movie today, there’s a huge disclaimer that says “This movie by no means portrays the hard working people of the South Bronx.” Something along those lines. For Hollywood to do a disclaimer like that was a huge win for us.

Tell me about the photo of the boy with the skateboard walking through all that water in the street, and seemingly without any shoes.

That’s Boo Boo. Boo Boo is a childhood friend. That’s actually a shot behind Michelangelo Apartments on 149th Street and Park Avenue.

Boo Boo (Photo courtesy of Joe Conzo)

I’ll tell you a real story: The Netflix show, The Get Down. They used a bunch of my photos as reference. In the first episode of The Get Down, as an homage to me, there’s a classroom scene with a kid walking around with a camera. At the premiere opening [the director, Baz Luhrmann], he stood me up and said Joe, that’s an homage to you.

I loved it. There’s so much controversy to the series because it wasn’t this, it wasn’t that. It wasn’t a documentary. It was a Hollywood series based on some true facts. I love the references to the true things that did happen. The gangs in the South Bronx, the local politicians, and the birth of hip hop. I loved the true references to those points, but it wasn’t a documentary, it was Hollywood… they hired me for two days to be a set photographer.

Your last name, is it Italian?

Who knows? I’m part Italian. On my mother’s side I’m Puerto Rican / Cuban and on my father’s side I’m Puerto Rican / Italian.

Joe Conzo, Jr. at LaGuardia Community College. (Photo by Francisco Molina Reyes II)

Tell me about your “Born in the Bronx” shop. What inspired you to create it?

So, Born in the Bronx was the brainchild of a gentleman I met. His name was Johan Kugelberg. He was a Swedish record executive many, many years ago and when the bubble burst in the record industry, he took a buyout and became a record historian. I was introduced to him by rapper Grandmaster Caz. He had to ask Caz, did anybody take pictures back in the day? And he said yes, Joe Conzo. I got an email years ago, and it said, “Hi, I’m Johan, I’d love to see some of your photographs.” So I chugged down to 86th Street hoping to sell some images. After hours of him saying, “these images are phenomenal, they need to be in a book, they need to be in a gallery museum,” he didn’t buy nothing from me.

But we developed a friendship that’s so close to this day. Everything he said he’d do he did. We put together a show called “Born in the Bronx” that had my early images, and traveled all over the world. Then we did the book called Born in the Bronx, and he ended up donating that entire archive to Cornell University, which in turn opened the door to me to deposit my archive of 10,000 negatives. My negatives are digitized, I get emails everyday from scholars either asking more questions or wanting to license my images. The best part about it is Cornell wrote me the biggest check I ever had in my life, AND I retain ownership. So Cornell’s at the forefront of archiving this hip hop collection. The shop started along with that.

Hernandez Grocery Store South Bronx circa 1980 (Photo courtesy of Joe Conzo)

Blake Lethem, AKA KEO, the brother of author Jonathan Lethem, did the tag for the cover of Born in the Bronx, the graffiti for it. It has become synonymous with hip hop. We own the rights to it. We’ve done T-shirts, hats, pins, patches. Whenever people refer to hip hop they refer to it as “born in the Bronx,” and that’s the title Johan and I came up with.

(From Joe Conzo, Jr. website)

Johan runs a gallery called Boo-Hooray, we’re trying to do the 10th anniversary of the book. We did the book with Rizzoli and the first 10,000 copies are sold out.

Do you know a lot of other photographers who use this business model?

Well, we all do. I mean, Janette Beckman, who did The Breaks, and another photographer who was a friend of mine, she did her book through powerHouse and licenses her images all the time. Henry Chalfant, Martha Cooper, Jamel Shabazz  – there was only a handful of us shooting images back then. Martha Cooper’s known as the hip hop godmother of photography, and every couple of years she’s doing one book or another. A lot of us travel and do talks and shows all over the world.

It doesn’t give you a pension, or medical benefits. I’ve been fortunate enough to work for the past 25 years with the FDNY. For the past few years I was vice president of my union, and for 20 of those years I worked on an ambulance – paramedic. And I could come to work next week and say hey, I’m gonna be gone, I’m going to be traveling.

What advice do you have to aspiring photographers on marketing their work and making money taking pictures?

Follow your dreams. In my high school yearbook under my picture there were my dreams: to work for news agencies. That was my dream, to become a professional photographer. It took 30 years, but it happened. I had to find a job, a career that I could fall back on. That was the medical career. I went to the army for five years, I was a combat medic. When I got out I joined EMS, which became the fire department. But when my images were discovered, so to speak…there’ve been some years I made more money with my photography than my city job.

“Fishing for coins,” South Bronx. (Photo courtesy of Joe Conzo)

If you could turn any of your black and white photos color, would you?

You gotta understand something – I was 16, 17 years old taking pictures and a roll of black and white film was a lot more expensive than color. To me today black and white is more colorful than color film anyway.

Do you think the internet has helped monetize photography and art, or hurt profits?

It’s been a curse and a blessing, because my images get stolen all the time – I have a big lawyer – but people know who Joe Conzo is.

Hannah Frishberg is editor in chief of Brokelyn. This article was written as part of the Business Reporting Fellowship of the Center for Community and Ethnic Media and funded by a grant from News Corp. 

One Comment

  1. Joe “Joey” Conzo, it is a pleasure to know that you continued to enjoy capturing images of the Bronx. Thank you. We went to high school together, so it brings me even more joy to know that you have been blessed throughout your life. Nevertheless, there is a difference between being pushed out and leaving a community. The Jews left their community, the Bronx, no one pushed them out. In fact, many of them purposely burned down their buildings so that they can collect the insurance. Unlike the people of color, who are truly being pushed out of their community now because they cannot afford to pay their rent.

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