An exhibit called “Three Photographers from the Bronx: Jules Aarons, Morton Broffman and Joe Conzo” seeks to capture the Bronx and American societal unrest at its peak.

Through June 14, the Bronx Museum of the Arts will present the work of these three photographers who had the good fortune to be alive during a moment of societal uprising. The exhibit features more than 80 works that depicted daily life in the Bronx and Far Rockaway in the early 1950s (when those communities were heavily Jewish enclaves); images of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, including pictures of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy Jr.; and Bronx community organizers protesting in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the Bronx had developed a reputation as a gang- and drug-infested, mostly Black and Latino area.

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 around the challenges the Bronx and similar communities continue to face today.

The AmNews spoke with Antonio Sergio Bessa, director of Curatorial and Education Programs at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, about the exhibit and what inspired him to put this work together.

“I have been trying to create an archive at the Bronx Museum of works by mostly Bronx-based artists,” said Bessa. “And I wanted to focus on the urban experience because the Bronx is this big kind of urban environment.”

Aarons was born in the Bronx in 1921 and eventually became a physicist, but his photography work was featured in the permanent collections of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris. Broffman, although from the Bronx, was based in Washington, D.C. His photography was driven by his commitment to the Civil Rights Movement. Conzo came to fame photographing the early days of hip-hop, along with the community’s social activism, as a teenager in the 1970s and 1980s.

Bessa encountered each artist in different ways. With Broffman, it was attending an exhibit about the Civil Rights Movement and realizing that Broffman was from the Bronx.

“I kept in touch with his family, and I kept saying that I would love to do a show,” said Bessa. “And I have been in touch with his son for a number of years now.”

With Conzo, it was his background as much as his work that intrigued Bessa.

“His mother and father were big community activists,” said Bessa. “And they would just schlep him around to rallies. He had a camera and he would photograph things, and I knew that Joe had shot during 1980 during a protest of the film with Paul Newman called ‘Fort Apache.’ The photos of the rallies themselves [all in black and white] are almost “like stills from a movie.”

With Aarons, even though he attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., and stayed in the Boston area for work, he often visited his parents who still lived in the Bronx and would take photographs at every opportunity.

“I was taken by these three photographers all having this sense of community,” said Bessa. “Looking at the Bronx as a community, no matter if it was a peaceful time or when it was in a time of transition. And this place helped give some of these guys the ability to sympathize with the quest of other people.” This ability to sympathize is what led to photos by these men not only of the Bronx but also of Mississippi during the movement, of the Poor People’s March/Rally in the nation’s capital and of the poverty-stricken lands of Appalachia.

“The exhibition is about what binds us together,” said Bessa. “Of being part of a community … of realizing how many different communities interact with each other.”

Although the Bronx has seen somewhat of an economic resurgence, what makes the borough so uniquely New York when much of the city has changed or gentrified the past few decades?

“I’ve heard people say many times that it was the economic crisis that actually prevented the Bronx from being destroyed and exploited,” said Bessa.

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