From its rag tag (and quite criminal) beginnings in the early ’80s, street art has evolved into a pillar of urban culture. Names like Banksy and Basquiat are so widespread you could hear their work mentioned in most social scenes.
But for all the hype graffiti and street art receive, the man known as their “godfather” doesn’t. Richard Hambleton, a quiet, elusive type, was at one time on track to achieve a similar level of fame, yet his most influential work — the dark, kinetic “shadowman” paintings — remain relatively unknown.
Hambleton’s “shadowmen,” metaphorical portraits depicting tall looming figures hastily splattered in black paint, were scattered around New York City, carefully calculated to deliver maximum impact on its passersby. In a time when the public feared to leave their homes at night, stumbling upon one of Hambleton’s paintings was an imposing event.
When Hambleton was only just beginning the project, one photographer saw the potential these silhouettes had. Franc Palaia, a Hudson Valley resident, captured close to 200 “shadowman” paintings as they appeared in the ’80s, curating his collection into a book titled Nightlife. Thirty of those photos were included in a recent documentary called Shadowman, making its recent premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival April 21, 22, 24, and again on the 28. While the film offers an insightful glimpse into Hambleton’s mind at the time his paintings started gaining attention, we chatted with Palaia for an closer look at how his work laid the foundation of a new form of art.
Where are you from in the Hudson Valley?
I’ve been living up here for about 15 years. I was in Poughkeepsie, and then we recently moved to Rhinebeck about three years ago.
You’re the first photographer to curate Hambleton’s work into a book, right?
Yes. I met him in 1980 and he was telling me about this project, and what he was going to do, and I thought it was a really cool idea.
Even in those days it wasn’t called street art, it was just called “crime.” But I kind of had a feeling in my bones that all these graffiti writers were going to become a major part of the culture, good or bad — or good and bad. I felt like I wanted to be part of it, and other people were coming up at the time, like Keith Haring and Basquiat.
But Hambleton really was one of the pioneers of this kind of things.
How did you manage to find and photograph his paintings?
He would tell me where he was doing this black shadows. Every couple of weeks he would call me to tell me, “I did some here, I did some there.”
I wanted to photograph them when they were fresh, nice and solid black, and pure, unadulterated. He was very discreet about it, he didn’t want to be caught.
Did you try to recreate the “shadowman’s” dark, imposing aura in your photographs?
It’s hard to really recreate that in a photograph. I didn’t photograph them at night, they were all painted at night and I probably should have. I just wanted to document them as they looked, as you would confront them in person. It almost became an interactive project.
I layed out the book in a certain way. The first part are the very early ones, like the very first ones that I photographed because they were beautifully black and pure and unadulterated. And as the book goes along, I added the ones that had a little bit of other peoples’ graffiti on it and towards the end there’s really crazy and wild stuff that others did with them, like put happy faces, and put clothes and dresses and tuxedos on them. They put furniture around them, like tables and telephones. Things got really kind of wacky.
Why hasn’t his work received much attention, compared to other street artists?
Well he had a big splash of attention in the mid- to- late-80s. But then the East Village neighborhood kind of died and faded away in the art world, and everything got kind of corporate. He was totally opposite of that.
For all the decades that I’ve known him he’s lived kind of almost underground. He was kind of a hermit most of the time. Eventually people knew that he was doing them, but he didn’t broadcast it, he didn’t show off about it, he kept a low profile. In fact it took the press awhile to track him down. I guess that’s part of the allure, part of the mystique, part of the mystery, part of the intrigue.