Photographer Joe Conzo Jr. looks at his photos at WallWorks NY at the October opening.
Photographer Joe Conzo Jr. looks at his photos at WallWorks NY at the October opening.
Photographer Joe Conzo Jr. looks at his photos at WallWorks NY at the October opening.

Mott Haven gallery highlights renowned Bronx photographers

Near the entrance of the new Mott Haven gallery WallWorks New York, actor Paul Newman scowls from a 1980 photo right into the camera of the now-renowned Bronx photographer Joe Conzo Jr., while someone from the production team tries to block the shot.

“I took this one while they were filming ‘Fort Apache, the Bronx,’” explained Conzo at the opening of WallWorks’ new exhibit “Point. Focus. Click.” Conzo, 51, shined a wide smile and recalled, “He was trying to scare me away because of the protests.” The film was a controversial hit depicting the life of a cop in Hunts Point’s 41st Precinct. It sparked protests in the neighborhood during its shooting because it portrayed the area as a dangerous, crime-ridden wasteland.

“Point. Focus. Click” is WallWorks New York’s second exhibit since it opened its doors in August. It showcases the work of twelve photographers whose simple request was that they be allowed to select which of their photos would be displayed rather than have the gallery make the selections. That way, the artists have been free to select their most personal works rather than the ones that are already well known.

Conzo was just a teenager when he captured that image of strife on the streets of his home turf, and of Newman, the matinee idol, frowning at him. Born and raised in the South Bronx, he has snapped acclaimed photos of some of the borough’s biggest musical icons over the years, from salsa pioneer Tito Puente to Hip-Hop stars the Cold Crush Brothers.

With a shiny FDNY golden plaque hanging around his neck –he has been a paramedic for the Fire Department since 1992– Conzo’s eyes light up when he recalls the days when he took the photos on display.

Other artists whose work now hanging at the fledgling gallery at the corner of Bruckner Boulevard and Alexander Avenue include Henry Chalfant, David Gonzalez, Lisa Kahane, Logan Hicks, Annie Leibovitz, Francisco Reyes II, Martha Cooper, STASH, Sue Kwon, DAZE and Ricky Flores.

Longwood native Ricky Flores’s installation,  a chest of drawers topped with family photos, religious figurines and votive candles, might seem to belong inside a private living room rather than an art gallery. But that sensation of down-home intimacy was exactly what Flores, 53, was aiming for.

Like Conzo, his colleague from the photographer’s collective Seis del Sur, Flores is a  South Bronx native who has documented life in the borough for decades. He explained that his installation is meant to show how photos depicting a drug- and violence-ridden neighborhood might look like anthropological exercises to outsiders, but they are simply family pictures to him and his fellow Bronx photographers.

“We had a difficult childhood,” Flores said, emphatically. “Only we have a clear understanding of what life was really like here.”

WallWorks New York, which opened in August, has begun selling some of the artworks it has been exhibiting. Gallery director Ana Matos, a Bronx native, said the gallery hopes to “bring art back to the Bronx” by showcasing local talent and bringing Manhattan patrons uptown. She and her father, Bronx graffiti artist John ‘Crash’ Matos, say they plan an official opening of Mott Haven’s newest art space in January.

“We are expecting to recover our initial investment after around the second year, but we didn’t expect to start earning so soon,” said an excited Matos while sliding a customer’s Visa card through her iPad.

“Point. Click. Focus.” will run at the gallery through Dec. 10.

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