A man stands frozen mid dance step, silhouetted in a silver lining of harsh fluorescent light. His right arm is twisted, his gloved hand contorted into a spout. The left arm rests on his hip, his head akimbo, topped by a glowing white Kangol. Darkness creeps in all around him, revealing a crowd of onlookers. This photograph, by Joe Conzo Jr., was made during an early Cold Crush Brothers gig in the Bronx at the very beginning of a musical phenomenon that would later be called hip-hop. Conzo claims that although the photo was a “mistake” because his flash didn’t go off, it’s still one of his favorites.
“I was the yearbook photographer and I just happened to have gone to school with some of the pioneers of the culture of hip-hop,” says Conzo, “I got invited by Eazy A.D. and Tony Tone, to take pictures of this group they were putting together called the Cold Crush Brothers.” From the very beginning, Conzo was keen to use a camera to tell his story.
Conzo went on to describe how his friends would make impromptu rhymes over the jazz and R&B records that his parents would play in their home, sparking the beginnings of the hip-hop phenomenon. “He would always have the Cold Crush Brothers at the house,” shares his sister Stacy Connolly, “Of course Joey wouldn’t cook the nights the CCB were hanging out so I had to cook. It always felt like a party. I could hear them rapping in the house and Joey had his camera at all times.”
His forays into the world of photography began at the side of his grandmother, the great Evelina Antonetty, known as the Hell Lady of the Bronx for her unrelenting advocacy and activism on behalf of immigrant communities. “Demonstrations at city hall, taking over Lincoln Hospital, taking over schools, taking over Hostos Community College — that was my upbringing,” Conzo says.
Growing up in the cauldron of 70s Bronx activism was intense. But living in the shadow of larger-than-life family members could be challenging. “I gotta be honest with you, I was a little angry because I was always known as the grandson of, or the son of, and I had to find my own identity,” Conzo says. “But in hindsight, as an adult, you know, I embrace it. I’m the gatekeeper to the family’s archives.” His biological father, Joe Conzo Sr. was also deeply immersed in music as a writer and historian. Conzo Sr. was close to a slew of latin jazz legends including Tito Puente, about whom he wrote a seminal biography.
These twin flames of music and activism burned bright in a young Conzo Jr. He was introduced to photography by his step father, Michael Kane, who was an amateur photographer. “My two great aunts Elba and Lillian always had a camera and loved taking family photos,” says Connolly, “I’m sure that also inspired Joey to take photos.”
He quickly proved to have an eye for detail, earning praise from his family, friends and teachers. His mother even converted one of the two bathrooms in their home into a darkroom. Soon his friends, the pioneering Cold Crush Brothers, started introducing him to other players in the burgeoning hip-hop scene. Those early connections would prove incredibly important. “I got to meet Afrika Bambaataa,” saysConzo, visibly excited on our Zoom call, “the Treacherous Three, (Grandmaster) Flash and the Furious Five, all the bricklayers of this culture. I still photograph them and travel the world with them today. Our relationship and friendship is paramount.”
Conzo was quick to add that back in those heady, early days, he and his friends were more about hanging out and partying over the weekend with this new music than any grand vision for fame or success. “I had no idea that this would become a billion dollar, No. 1 genre of music in the world,” he says.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing for Conzo who battled drug addiction. This was the only time he put down his camera, according to his sister Stacy. Their mother saved all his film negatives and prints during this troubled phase of his life. Without her foresight the “baby photos of hip-hop” would have been lost forever.
Conzo has had an incredible life as a photographer. For most people, international acclaim would be enough. Not for Conzo. He has also devoted a large part of his professional life to being a medic in the New York City Fire Department.
His countenance turned serious as he explained the reason for this double career, “My grandmother literally gave her life to the people of the Bronx. My mother literally gave her life also with the same program. I followed suit in my career with the New York City Fire Department, helping people, delivering babies and saving lives.”
Conzo survived the 9/11 attack after being buried under rubble. He traveled across the country advocating for fair compensation of the emergency workers who were killed or injured in the line of duty, as part of a collective effort that resulted in the 9/11 victims’ compensation fund. After serving on ambulances for over a decade, Conzo traded in his medic gear for a suit and served the department as a union leader for another eight years, rising to the position of vice president.
When he retired in 2018, he had to wage another, more serious battle when he was diagnosed with liver and pancreatic cancer. “We had lost our mother six months earlier. This was the last thing we needed to hear,” shared Connolly. With support from his wife, family and friends Conzo said that he was able to overcome the dreaded disease. “I had no signs, no symptoms, no pain, no nothing. It was a hard fight,” he shares, adding that he’s currently in remission.
Throughout his medic career photography remained a constant. Photography got him on the Bronx Walk of Fame; the archive of his work now sits in the same room as the original Gettysburg address at Cornell University. Conzo had a credo from his earliest days of wielding a camera: “Our story has to be told by ourselves. We have to control the narrative. And that’s how I approach photography. Hopefully, when I’m long gone, my photos will tell a story.”