Jamel Shabazz

Documenting the Complexity and Vibrancy of the NYC Streets

By Jonathan Judd


Figures positioned within the urban setting they call home, having either recently arrived or fully living, breathing and radiating the street life, city life, dwelling in a borough in which they are inextricably bound for better or worse. Posing on side streets, young men gesture while the graffiti scrawled wall behind beckons with a corresponding attitude and bravado. Photography is the medium used, but veteran artist and seasoned Brooklynite, Jamel Shabazz does more than capture an instant, he does more than transfer a three dimensional reality to a two dimensional document. Shabazz’s work places the city’s human terrain in view. Contributing to the historical archive he captures those most vital moments, when unique personalities and vivid realities open to the viewer.


Shabazz, in his artistic oeuvre, playfully combs the city from urban grit to Manhattan decadence, producing a composite portrait of the true vitality and complexity of New York street culture. His photographic work, which spans decades, now proliferates the international gallery and museum circuit. Specifically, his work produced during the 1980s, faithfully documenting the emergent hip-hop and B-boy culture and identity in NYC, turned him into a creative icon for contemporary cultural producers, historians and documentarians alike. It’s no wonder then that his most recent solo-exhibition took place in as far flung and seemingly antithetical a location as Cologne, Germany, because his work goes beyond the specificity of time and place. As the artist states, in promoting his exhibition, “it´s a universal body of work about compassion, empathy, bringing out the beauty within people and the love that bridges the gaps between us.”

The 1980s was a decade rife with contradiction and uncertainty. As the art world elites soared to ever-greater financial pay-offs, the AIDS epidemic ravaged the city and new volatile and addictive substances like crack-cocaine entered and plagued minority communities. And yet out of the chaos and tension emerged a manifold creative network, artists spurred on by the distinctive street culture: graffiti took on a whole new light as a democratic art apart from gallery and museum hierarchy; hip-hop began to gather and cultivate the rhythms, beats and lyricism of black consciousness in the city; and new expressive forms like break dance and hip-hop style and fashion took shape. In the middle of it all, Shabazz stood by with a critical eye, ever watchful for those moments when the human spirit rises from tragedy and inequity to carry on, unbroken and perseverant. 


At his best, Shabazz does something truly monumental, which brings focus to his skill as an artist but also as an activist, in his own way. With dignity and grace he brings African-American lives to the fore, pointing to them as substantive and valuable fodder for artistic creation. Colorful prints show an eye for dynamic composition and diverse content. From the beginning, his inspiration was drawn from the documentary work of photographers like Leonard Freed, James Van Der Zee and Gordon Parks, who worked to capture the rich texture of the African American community in NYC. And Shabazz honors those who inspired him, as he in turn dares to continue this work, making visible the African American faces, identities and personalities in all their diverse and quotidian activities within the city. His Father also played a significant role in developing his technical prowess, virtuosity and unique vision, for he himself was a professional photographer.

Overall, it becomes clear that the city (Brooklyn in particular) itself inspired and influenced Shabazz in ways that continue to mesmerize and entice artists in every generation. Images portraying young men posing in a spontaneous choreography of the moment, reflect a self-consciousness and dignity, as they choose the way in which their image is spread to the wider public. As the artist stated in a recent interview for Dazed magazine, “New York City has still maintained its vibrancy and constant flow of energy and magnetism that make it one of the greatest cities in the world...I honestly feel that if I had lived in any other borough outside of Brooklyn, I would not have been able to document such cultural diversity,” so much of his work echoes these words as each image captures the now while promotes a future full of possibilities.