Picture Elsewhere: Two New Photography Classics


Praeger Publishers

One of the only times I have willfully ripped someone off was when I got my first edition of Jon Naar and Norman Mailer's 1974 rare classic Faith of Graffiti. This was in the early days of eBay. I convinced someone to close an auction early and sell me a nice copy of this book for about $30, as I desperately needed it for a school project. This was kind of true: I was very desperate, and I was still in school. (And, in my further defense, $30 was triple the initial asking price.)

Once the book arrived, haphazardly mummy-wrapped in tissue paper, any feelings of sketchiness instantly dissolved. This book was a treasure, energies of pride and despair coursing through Naar's photos, Mailer's bold essay inaugurating a new approach to understanding those images' codes, customs and faiths. With its almost ostentatiously over-sized dimensions, Faith towered over every other book in my collection, and its vast pages were like windows into futures we did not end up choosing. It describes a possible city—one in which bulging property values and $30,000/year parking spaces seem the stuff of science fiction—and a different version of public space, and it's probably a good thing that this past seems so distant. Owning Faith was like joining a cult. It has been that way since 1974. For years, only the careful consumer of second-hand goods could reconstruct the recorded histories of New York graffiti and street art, hunting down out-of-circulation books like Steven Hager's illustrated guide to hip-hop and Subway Art or videos like Style Wars, All City and Stations of the Elevated. But Faith was the Holy Grail.

I had the honor of introducing Jon Naar at a reading the other night at McNally Jackson. Even though the event was organized around the Faith reissue, Jon very generously shared the spotlight with the freakishly insightful Marc and Sara Schiller of the Wooster Collective and SNAKE 1 and BUTLER, two of the artists who, as young teens, featured in his book. It was absolutely engrossing hearing SNAKE and BUTLER, now middle-aged men, recall those moments captured by Naar's camera and reflect on all the changes they've witnessed in the city and its relationship to public art.

It was amusing, too, hearing SNAKE describe how difficult it was to track a copy down—it took him over a decade! BUTLER, who would, ironically enough, grow up, become a cop, and make his first arrest while on a graffiti stakeout, is actually in this photo (probably my favorite from the book)—he's in the top row, second from the right. Their attendance and insights made it an extra-powerful event. Jon's photos challenge us to ponder all that has happened since then: in the case of SNAKE and BUTLER, it's a connection to former selves; for the rest of us, it's our arrival at a moment when such a foregone city, incubating weird, new ideas, seems genuinely impossible, especially when such things like the Times Square bomber might become a case for London-style CCTV.

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Hua Hsu teaches in the English Department at Vassar College and writes about music, sports, and culture. More

Hua Hsu teaches in the English Department at Vassar College and writes about music, sports, and culture. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, Bookforum, Slate, The Village Voice, The Boston Globe Ideas section and The Wire (for whom he writes a bi-monthly column). He is on the editorial board for the New Literary History of America.

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