James Prigoff, who documented street art, dies at 93

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James Prigoff, who documented street art, dies at 93
Prigoff was the author, with Henry Chalfant, of “Spraycan Art” (1987).

by Neil Genzlinger

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- James Prigoff, who after beginning his career in business turned his attention to photography, documenting public murals and street art in thousands of pictures taken all over the world and helping to legitimize works once dismissed as vandalism, died April 21 at his home in Sacramento, California. He was 93.

His granddaughter Perri Prigoff confirmed his death.

Prigoff was the author, with Henry Chalfant, of “Spraycan Art” (1987), a foundational book in the street-art field that featured more than 200 photographs of colorful, intricate artworks in rail tunnels, on buildings and elsewhere — not only in New York, then considered by many to be the epicenter of graffiti art, but also in Chicago, Los Angeles, Barcelona, London, Vienna and other cities. It included interviews with many of the artists and even captured some of them in the act of creating their work.

The book sold hundreds of thousands of copies. Chalfant, in a phone interview, said a British newspaper had also given it a less financially rewarding distinction: It said “Spraycan Art” was the second-most-stolen book in London. (The most stolen book, Chalfant said, was the similar “Subway Art,” which he and Martha Cooper had published three years earlier.)

“Spraycan Art” came out at a time when street art had grown fairly sophisticated but the artists who made it were still regarded by many as mere vandals. Prigoff, in subsequent books and in the talks he gave, argued otherwise.

“‘Vandalism’ may be a matter of point of view, but it is clearly art,” he told the Press-Telegram of Long Beach, California, in 2007. “Museums and collectors buy it, corporations co-opt it, and it matches all the dictionary definitions of art.”

Those who dismiss street art, he contended, are missing its significance. That was certainly the case for the Black artists he and Robin Dunitz documented in “Walls of Heritage, Walls of Pride: African American Murals” (2000), who were long marginalized by the white art elite, as was their culture.

“Given limited access to the more formal art venues,” he wrote in the preface to that book, “African American artists chose the streets and other public places to create images that challenged negative messages.”

In a 1993 talk in Vancouver, British Columbia, he decried what he called a double standard in cities that continued to conduct a war on graffiti but allowed billboards for Camel cigarettes, with their images of Joe Camel.

“You tell me what’s uglier,” he challenged the audience, “a wall of spray-can art or the cartoon character with the phallic face?”

James Burton Prigoff was born Oct. 29, 1927, in Queens, New York City. His father, Harold, was a mechanical engineer, and his mother, Fannie Bassin Prigoff, was a homemaker who the family said graduated from Syracuse Law School.

Prigoff grew up in New Rochelle, New York, and graduated from New Rochelle High School at 16. He studied industrial engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, graduating in 1947. Among the positions he held in the business world were division president at Levi Strauss and senior vice president of the Sara Lee Corp. in Chicago.

He first made headlines not for his photography but for his squash playing. “Prigoff Triumphs in Squash Tennis; Beats Bacallao to Win 6th U.S. Title in 8 Years,” read one such headline in The New York Times in April 1967.

Prigoff said that his interest in street art and public murals was piqued in the mid-1970s when he attended a lecture by Victor Sorell, an art historian who had been documenting the work of Hispanic street artists in Chicago.

“I quickly found that documenting murals satisfied three interests that strongly motivated me,” he wrote in the preface to “Walls of Heritage.” “I enjoyed photography, I respected the community aspect of public art, and I had a strong concern for social and political justice — often the subject matter of street art.”

Prigoff retired from the business world in 1987 and two years later settled in Sacramento. He continued to pursue his passion for photographing public murals of all kinds, sanctioned and otherwise.

“Sometimes it takes a book to help us ‘see’ the artistic merit of places we drive or walk by daily,” Patricia Holt wrote in 1997 in the San Francisco Chronicle, reviewing “Painting the Towns: Murals of California,” an earlier Prigoff-Dunitz collaboration.

Prigoff, who also photographed archaeological sites, viewed street art as part of a very long historical chain.

“Go back thousands of years,” he told The San Diego Union-Tribune in 1995. “People have been writing their names in the damnedest places for so long.”

One of his favorite cities for mural hunting was Philadelphia, and in 2015 he lent 1,500 images he had taken there to Mural Arts Philadelphia, where Steve Weinik, the digital archivist, has been working to create an archive of them.

“Jim was early to recognize the fact that graffiti is both legitimate art and ephemeral,” Weinik said by email. “He understood that the photograph was the record, and worked to document graffiti and murals at a time when virtually no one else recognized these things. His photography and his push to share it with the world helped to both preserve and validate the work.”

Prigoff loved to travel and he took pictures everywhere he went. One seemingly harmless picture landed him in hot water, and in a civil suit against the U.S. Department of Justice. In 2004 he was near Boston and took a photo of the so-called Rainbow Swash, a colorfully painted gas storage tank.

“Private security guards filed a suspicious activity report on Mr. Prigoff simply because he photographed public art on a natural gas storage tank in the Boston area,” Hugh Handeyside, senior staff attorney for the National Security Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, said by email, “and FBI agents later visited him at his home in Sacramento and questioned his neighbors about him.”

Prigoff became one of several plaintiffs in a 2014 lawsuit against the Department of Justice contending that, in its zeal after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the government was overreaching in its definition of “suspicious activity.” The suit, Handeyside said, ultimately failed to change policy, but Prigoff thought the issue was important.

“I lived through the McCarthy era,” he wrote of the incident, “so I know how false accusations, surveillance, and keeping files on innocent people can destroy their careers and lives.”

Prigoff’s wife of 72 years, Arline Wyner Prigoff, died in 2018. He is survived by two sons, Wayne and Bruce; two daughters, Lynn Lidstone and Gail Nickerson; 11 grandchildren; and eight great-grandchildren.

Chalfant said that Prigoff had just recently sent him images he had shot of Sacramento during the coronavirus pandemic.

“He took pictures all around the city,” Chalfant said, “of the emptiness of it.”

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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