"Art is Business"
I met Jim Prigoff in 1992, he presented for our Mural Summit when I contracted for the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission in Sacramento California, he also presented during the African American Art Summit, held in Sacramento, and San Jose California presenteed by the Visual Arts Development Project, and Celebration Arts Visual Arts Program. With much respect, he goes down in history for his documentation and for creating a legacy for muralists that reached international acclaim.  I always say he opened doors for me when I left Sacramento for Chicago by sending me a letter of introduction to the Chicago Public Art Group in 1999, where I became their program manager in 2000.  Alpha Bruton


BEYOND THE STREETS New York, 2019. Photo by Desdemona Dallas.

Jim Prigoff assembled one of the most extensive bodies of photo documentation of the global mural movement beginning in the 1970s. By the 1980s, he was photographing graffiti and co-produced the book Spraycan Art with friend Henry Chalfant in 1987, now considered a classic tome of modern graffiti. In addition, he has contributed to numerous books and projects and continues to lecture as a historian on public murals, graffiti, and spray can art. 

By Neil Genzlinger
Published May 1, 2021
Updated May 5, 2021
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 on April 21 at his home in Sacramento, Calif. He was 93.

His granddaughter Perri Prigoff confirmed his death.

Mr. 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 artists and even captured some of them in creating their work.

The book sold hundreds of thousands of copies. However, Mr. 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, Mr. Chalfant noted, was the similar "Subway Art," which he and Martha Cooper had published three years earlier.)

“ Spraycan Art,” written by Mr. Prigoff and Henry Chalfant and published in 1987, was a foundational book in the street-art field.
"Spraycan Art," written by Mr. Prigoff and Henry Chalfant and published in 1987, was a foundational book in street art.

"Spraycan Art" came out when street art had grown relatively sophisticated, but the artists who made it were still regarded by many as mere vandals. Mr. 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, Calif., 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 long-marginalized Black artists he and Robin J. Dunitz documented in the book "Walls of Heritage, Walls of Pride: African American Murals" (2000).

"Given limited access to the more formal art venues," Mr. Prigoff wrote in the preface, "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 a double standard in cities that continued to conduct a war on graffiti while allowing 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 on October 29, 1927, in Queens. 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.

Mr. Prigoff grew up in New Rochelle, N.Y., 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 Corporation 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 in The New York Times in April 1967.

Mr. Prigoff said that his interest in street art and public murals was piqued in the mid-1970s when he attended a lecture by Victor A. 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, respected the community aspect of public art, and had a strong concern for social and political justice — often the subject of street art."

He retired from the business world in 1987 and, two years later, settled in Sacramento. However, 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.

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

"Go back thousands of years," he told The San Diego Union-Tribune in 1995. "People have written 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 that graffiti is both legitimate art and ephemeral," Mr. 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 preserve and validate the work."

Mr. Prigoff loved to travel, and he took pictures everywhere he went. But, unfortunately, one seemingly harmless shot landed him in hot water and 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 F.B.I. agents later visited him at his home in Sacramento and questioned his neighbors about him."

Mr. Prigoff, who became one of several plaintiffs in a 2014 lawsuit against the Justice Department, contends that, in its zeal after the attacks of September 11, 2001, the government was overreaching in its definition of "suspicious activity." The suit, Mr. Handeyside said, ultimately failed to change policy, but Mr. 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."

Mr. 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.

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

"He took pictures all around the city," Mr. Chalfant said, "of the emptiness of it."

Neil Genzlinger is a writer for the Obituaries Desk. Previously he was a television, film, and theater critic. @genznyt • Facebook

A version of this article appears in print on May 6, 2021, Section A, Page 26 of the New York edition with the headline: James Prigoff, 93, Dies; Photographer Had Zeal For