One teenage photographer’s incredible record of the 1970s Bronx and its musical pioneers
Joe Conzo has a report card from 1972 that says, ‘Joe Conzo is excelling in photography.’ He was nine years old.
The hobby continued into his teens as around him swirled gangs, drugs and social uprising. The Bronx in the 1970s provided the perfect conditions for a new scene, and Conzo just happened to be there at the birth of hip hop, with his camera at the ready.
‘I had no idea I was documenting a moment in time. I just liked taking pictures,’ he says.
He was there when The Cold Crush Brothers started performing hip hop gigs around town. Only they didn’t call it hip hop then - it didn’t have a name. The pioneering hip hop legends hired Conzo to be their official photographer when he was still stuck on disco.Coming of age: A self-portrait of Joe Conzo circa 1982, when he was 19, and right Conzo walking through the Bronx
1983: Inside Harlem World, a venue in Harlem
‘These were friends of mine, I grew up with them and went to school with them, and these are kids that took hip hop from the Bronx to Manhattan to London,’ says Conzo.
‘The Bronx back then, it was a different time,’ he says. ‘It was more family-oriented, but there was turbulence, gangs, drugs, social uprising, people fighting for rights.’
Conzo is a third-generation Bronx resident, the child of a political family with a deep passion for their community and culture. ‘My grandmother was known at the Hell Lady of the Bronx,’ he says. ‘Her name was Evelina Antonetty, and she was a big community activist, fighting for decent education for black and Latino kids.’
Pioneers: (from left) Tony Tone, La Sunshine and Charlie Chase in the gym of Taft High School in the BronxBeginnings: The Cold Crush Brothers perform at Harlem WorldDisadvantage: Joe Conzo captured the distribution of cheese rationed out to Bronx residents by the governmentThey were there: Members of the Cold Crush Brothers at T Connection in the Bronx
Concrete jungle: A rundown Bronx neighborhood
And his father was the longtime confidante and sometime manager of legendary Latino musician Tito Puente. ‘So when I wasn’t capturing my hip hop buddies, I was taking photos of Tito Puente, Celia Cruz. And of political things that happened in the community, like the Fort Apache protests, taking photos of Paul Newman,’ he says, referring to the 1981 film Fort Apache, a crime drama set in the south Bronx.
Conzo’s images were very nearly lost as he battled a drug addiction and brushes with the law, but his mother saved all the negatives of his early photography.
‘It was phenomenal,’ he says. ‘I had put down my cameras due to personal demons and she pretty much saved everything. She saved it because that was the only thing she had left of me. I’ve been clean and sober now for 20 years.’
Since then, he’s been ’saving lives and delivering babies’ with the New York City Fire Department and has just been made vice president of emergency services in his local area, in charge of 4000 EMTs.
Conzo says it was about 10 years ago that he asked his mother about the negatives, and rediscovered the images of his youth. He picked up his camera again and has been documenting hip hop culture around the world - and the Bronx community, where he still lives.
A book of Joe Conzo’s early photography called Born in the Bronx is published by Rizzoli USA.Tag: The word ‘crash’ on a pylon in the lower left of the photo is an early tag by famed graffiti artist John Crash Matos whose work now sells for upwards of $30,000
Hollywood invasion: Paul Newman, left, fixed a young Joe Conzo with a steelHollywood invasion: Paul Newman, left, fixed a young Joe Conzo with a steely stare, which was duly caught on film, during filming of Fort Apache, The Bronx
Movie madness: A 1981 demonstration against the Paul Newman film Fort Apache which was set in the south Bronx area
Local color: A man pulls an interesting face on the streets of the Bronx in the early 1980sRebellion: Joe Conzo honed his photography skills growing up in in crime-riddled Bronx, which was also a melting pot of cultural and political influences; here, he experiments with light photography and right, Bronx Borough President Stanley Simon giving a bouquet to Vice President Walter Mondale’s wife in the early ’80s Today: 50-year-old Joe Conzo is still taking photos, exhibiting his work and participating in his local community and music events1970s, Born in the Bronx, Bronx Borough President, Bronx Hip Hop, Bronx Living, Bronx Neighborhood News, Bronx News, Bronx People, Bronx residents, Education, Entertainment, Fort Apache, graffiti, High School, hip-hop, Joe Conzo, Latino, Manhattan, Music, New York City, Other Area News, Paul Newman, Rap, South Bronx, Taft High School, The Bronx, Tito Puente