Artwork by Chris "Daze" Ellis. Photograph by Liz Ligon.

Artwork by Lady Pink. Photograph by Liz Ligon.

Howard the Duck Handball Court photograph by Charlie Ahearn.
A photograph of friend Lee Quiñones’ massive 1978 handball court mural,
created 10 years earlier and since destroyed, at Corlears Junior High School on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.     

DUMP KOCH painted by Spin, photograph by Martha Cooper, 1982.

Graffiti Kids, photograph by Jon Naar, 1973.©Jon Naar
Photographer Jon Naar documented New York’s graffiti art movement in 1970s and ’80s
including artists, such as the pictured kids, posing with their work.

Redbird (Stay High 149) photograph by Jon Naar, 1973.©Jon Naar
Photographer Jon Naar documented New York’s graffiti art movement in 1970s and ’80s
including landscape images of graffiti-covered subway trains rumbling through the city.
This particular photograph is of a train painted by STAY HIGH 149, a pioneer in the writing movement.  


Perched at the outskirts of Museum Mile, the Museum of the City of New York is a rose in Spanish Harlem. Located at 1220 Fifth Avenue between 103 and 104 Streets, the Museum was incorporated in 1923 to preserve and present the history of New York City and its people. The collection includes more than 1.5 million items, and is known for its comprehensive photography collection, which includes works by Jacob Riis, Berenice Abbott, Andreas Feininger, Byron Company, Irving Underhill, the photographic archives for LOOK Magazine, as well as the photographic work commissioned by the renowned architectural firm of McKim, Mead and White. The collections document the city’s ever changing landscape, reminding us of the ways in which New York presents itself upon the world’s stage, as well as to itself.

Sean Corcoran is the Curator of Prints and Photographs at the Museum of the City of New York. A native of the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, Corcoran attended Nazareth College in Rochester, which is also home to the George Eastman House, the world’s oldest museum dedicated to photography. He recalls, “Basically, I grew up in Kodakland. Photography was a normal part of living in that area, particularly in the 1970s and 80s.

“I was always a collector as a kid. I collected baseball cards and comic books. I became obsessive about collecting them all, having the series and putting them in order. By high school and college, it was records. I am still an LP collector and I love photography books.

“It’s terrible because I like everything. My collecting focus tends to change year to year, but over the last couple of years, it’s been Stax and Fania first pressings. And I’m always willing to pick up an old school rap album that I might have had on CD. I will buy everything from Merle Haggard to DNA to the Fearless Four.

“For better or worse, I guess I am a materialist. I like things - objects. I like those large 12” dust jackets with their art and liner notes. MP3s and CDs are a totally different experience. I still believe in 'the album' and enjoy listening to the twelve to fifteen songs that are put together carefully. With vinyl you can’t put it on in your car or walk around with it. You have to give it a certain amount of time and respect.

“There are a few records in my collection I’m particularly into at the moment. I have a great copy of Eddie Hazel’s Game, Dames and Guitar Thangs. I have been playing the PHASE 2 and FUTURA 2000 twelve-inch singles that Celluloid Records put out in the early 1980s. They combine many of my favorite things.

“As to photography books—it directly relates to what I do for a living, but it is also something I love. For a monograph or artist’s book, I look for and appreciate the choices they are making in terms of layout, design and sequencing. That’s a transformative process. The individual photographs become something new. Part of my appreciation for photography books comes from learning from Nathan Lyons when I worked at the George Eastman House. He is a photographer, curator, and educator. He founded the Visual Studies Workshop in Rochester in 1969 and has explored photographic sequencing and visual books for more than fifty years.”

Corcoran came to the Museum of the City of New York in 2007. His interests in photography, art, and history overlap in a distinct way within the Museum’s walls. The personal passions of collecting find them manifest in ways that are remarkable. Most recently the Museum hosted “City as Canvas: New York City Graffiti from the Martin Wong Collection” to great acclaim.

During one of his many visits to the stacks, Corcoran had come across some black books from Wong’s collection, which had been donated to the Museum in 1994, just five years before he would die from AIDS in San Francisco. In total, Martin Wong (1946-1999) donated 55 black books to the Museum as a way of preserving the history he had so carefully documented. In addition to the books, Wong’s collection included more than 300 mixed media paintings on canvas, cardboard, paper, and plywood.

From this collection, Corcoran curated an exhibition so significant, it drew fire from New York Police Commissioner William Bratton in an interview with The Wall Street Journal on August 18, 2014. Bratton said, “I find it outrageous that one of the city’s museums is currently celebrating graffiti and what a great impact it had on the city.” He then further criticized the Museum from having school kids brought on class trips and celebrating the city’s artistic legacy.

The exhibition, which closes on Sunday, September 21, presents 105 works by legendary writers DAZE. DONDI, FUTURA 200, Keith Haring, LADY PINK, LEE, and SHARP among others, alongside historical photographs by Charlie Ahearn, Henry Chalfant, Martha Cooper, Jon Naar, and Jack Stewart. Paired together, the paintings, drawings, and photographs take us back to a time and a place that, though not far away at all, no longer exists in our daily lives.

It is the photograph that records the past and keeps it present. It is the photographs that create the context, a context that may be difficult to imagine for those who did not live it. This period in New York City history marks the creation of a style and a culture that has swept the world with anti-authoritarian delight. It was here in these black books and paintings that a new world was born, and it is here in these photographs that this world remains forever more.

Corcoran observes, “We decided to show the Martin Wong Collection because we thought it had real cultural significance to New York’s story over the last thirty, forty years. Graffiti was such an omnipresent part of life in New York. It was loved and hated, there was no in between. Whatever you thought of it, there is no doubt it had an affect on culture in general. Style writing as it is known today was born in New York and became a worldwide phenomenon. It is important to note that this exhibition highlights the artists who went beyond the streets and made work on canvas. Many of whom are exhibited in museums around the world today.”

Accompanying the exhibition is a catalogue of the same name, published by Skira Rizzoli with the Museum of the City of New York, featuring essays by Charle Ahearn, Carlo McCormick, Sacha Jenkins, Lee Quiñones, Chris “Daze” Ellis, Aaron “Sharp” Goodstone, and Sean Corcoran. The essays create a context for Wong’s obsession for the art, an obsession that adds intimacy and understanding to his need to collect, to document, to preserve.

In that same way, these needs are understood and represented in the form of the book, and the exhibition, in their own distinct ways. It is the curator who is charged with the need to communicate this. As Corcoran observes, “A book is a contained object. In a book, the narrative is pretty controlled. It is very structured and you move in a linear way. In an exhibition space, the scale of the images is very different. As much as you try to influence it, people are free to move in any direction. The actual experience may be more true to the vision of the artist. In both forms, you lose control and you gain control in different ways. It’s a trade off either way. The victory of the book is that it lasts.”

Visit The Museum of the City of New York
Curated by Miss Rosen

Sean Corcoran


Howard the Duck Handball Court photograph by Charlie Ahearn.
A photograph of friend Lee Quiñones’ massive 1978 handball court mural, created 10 years earlier
and since destroyed, at Corlears Junior High School on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.


Photograph by Liz Ligon


The Museum of the City of New York


The Museum of the City of New York


Martin Wong, photograph by Peter Bellamy, 1985.