Jamel Shabazz is a living legend in the world of street photography. He’s best known for his street portraits documenting 1980s hip hop fashion worn by everyday New Yorkers. But he also trained his camera on all aspects of street life. And he was a corrections officer for two decades, using his camera to document that part of his life.
A new exhibit called "Jamel Shabazz: Eyes on the Street" features 150 of his images at the Bronx Museum of the Arts. It’s not just 40 years of New York City history; it’s also a window into the mind of one of the city's best artists.
Wearing a royal blue blazer, sharkskin shoes and glasses with square frames, Shabazz gingerly walked through the museum on a recent Sunday, stopping to point out images that have a deep meaning for him — which is pretty much all of them.
The exhibit isn’t chronological. But if you take a right when you enter the space, you see one of the first images Shabazz made on returning home after serving in the U.S. Army in Germany for three years.
It’s a man holding a protest sign — and it’s striking because it’s so unlike most of Shabazz’s images. You can’t can’t see the subject’s face or most of his clothes, two visual signatures of nearly all the artist's images. But there is a hint of what’s to come: a pair of blue-and-pink plaid pants are visible, and match the lettering on the placard, which reads: “Racism destroys the intellect of Black and white alike.”
The image marks the start of Shabazz’s 40-year exploration of street life, fashion and being Black in America.
“It was very important for me to show this image due to the message, and the fact that it’s street photography,” Shabazz said.
Street photography — the art of capturing a fleeting moment, but also documenting a place in time.
“I used to travel throughout the Lower East side, and I saw the Bowery, and alcoholism and addiction, so I documented that early on, and prostitution,” Shabazz recalled. But he says his father, a photographer who shot portraits and weddings, encouraged him to expand his vision.
“He pushed me to have a balance," Shabazz explained. "And he never mentioned the idea of joy to me before — I think subconsciously I realized I need to balance this out, and I need to look for joy and love.”
And it’s here, in abundance. Black joy. There’s a father and son at a restaurant, both wearing stylish hats and sweaters sharing a meal, a quiet moment documented. Teenagers on a crowded train, peeking through the window to give Shabazz their best grin — a memento from a different era, when the trains were covered in graffiti but it wasn’t all bad. A group of friends piled in a shopping cart on the street in Flatbush, laughing out loud as the warm sun sets behind them.
“It’s almost like a three dimensional type immersion,” photographer Terrence Jennings, Shabazz’s longtime friend, told Gothamist. “It’s like you look at Jamel’s photographs and it’s almost like you could walk into the photograph into that particular frame.”
That time traveling is present in the many photos of young men and women sporting Kangol hats, a boy doing backflips on an old mattress and graffiti writers outside a subway station.
“So much of Jamel’s work is about collectivity and community, collective consciousness — the way human beings together generate style and ideas and have collective impact,” Isolde Brielmaier, deputy director at the New Museum and guest curator at the International Center for Photography, told Gothamist.
Shabazz wasn’t a professional photographer for most of his life — he had another career, in law enforcement. He worked in jails like Rikers Island. But following his father's guidance, he always had his camera with him. The Bronx Museum show includes several images from that period of his life.
One image shows a man at a telephone. His face is obscured by the cracked glass, but he’s wearing a Newport cigarettes shirt that reads: “Alive with Pleasure.”
There are also snapshots Shabazz took of his co-workers. And he did a stint working security at a men’s shelter on Ward’s Island, which led to one of the most quiet and lovely photos in the exhibit. A man is lying in bed by an open window on a summer day, with his head upright, half smiling, with a cigarette in his hand.
“I’m walking around and I have my camera concealed, and I saw this moment right here,” Shabazz said. “And something compelled me to capture it. I don’t know what his name is or anything about him, but I just know that the memory is captured of my experience working there for that short time.”
The image gives this man a moment of dignity — Shabazz telling him he’s beautiful and as worthy of being photographed as anyone else.
The exhibit also provides a peek into Shabazz’s working process. Glass display cases are full of his personal items. There’s a Contax G2 camera, one of his trusty war horses. There’s also a slim photo album, which he used to carry around with him as a way of introducing himself to his subjects.
If you look closely, his portfolio even appears in some of the photos. In one image of four prostitutes smiling and laughing, one woman is standing apart from the group, clutching Shabazz’s portfolio. The photographer's love of Malcolm X, also comes through in this image.
“Looking at Malcolm X’s book, how he’d teach prostitutes and get them off the street, I wanted to be like that,” Shabazz said. “I was able to get her to look at a better way. She’s looking at a better path. She’s separating herself from these girls. And she’s moving on.”
Like many photos in this show, this one has never been seen by the public.
While much of the exhibit evokes nostalgia for an era, and a city that’s no longer here, Shabazz’s work is still unfolding. The exhibition includes an image of a man with a stylish mask and visor, taken during the first summer of the pandemic.
Outside of the Bronx Museum, Shabazz didn’t miss a beat when he spotted two kids horsing around outside of a laundromat. A young girl clambers onto her brother’s back. He’s got a shock of light blue hair with his head shaved on the sides. Shabazz lifted his point-and-shoot camera, which hung around his neck. Then he wheeled around a camera with a longer lens to grab another photo.
“Wow, it’s so beautiful," Shabazz said. “Put your arm around your brother.”
He’s fast with the camera, warm, but firm. He had a vision of how this image could work.
“That is so beautiful, thank you so much — please come to the museum to see my show, alright?” he told the children. Then, to me: “That’s how it goes down... you caught me in rare form.”
"Jamel Shabazz: Eyes on the Street" is on view at the Bronx Museum of the Arts through September 4th.