Jamel Shabazz Street Photographer
Directed by Charlie Ahearn
As one of New York’s first street style photographers, Jamel Shabazz helped set the tone for sites like Humans of New York and the Sartorialist. Beyond serving as a lookbook of Brooklyn cool from the late 1970s to the present, his work serves as a historical record of the last three decades in the borough and city as glimpsed through his focus on graffiti writers, subway riders and members of the Nation of Islam. His images’ most powerful function, which Charlie Ahearn zooms in on in Jamel Shabazz Street Photographer‘s most moving moments, is as memorials to his many, many subjects who have since died from gun violence or drugs.
The images ooze style, but their undercurrents are often tragic. Flipping through his photographs in parks, barbershops and on street corners from Harlem to his childhood block in Flatbush, Shabazz and his friends keep pointing out who has died and how. That underlying violence is all the more palpable in light of his longtime day job as a correctional officer at Riker’s Island, where he earned the trust of many wayward young men who would later vouch for him, boosting his street cred and gaining him access to previously off-limit subjects. Beneath the Kangol hats and behind the Gazelle glasses, his photographs document stories that otherwise survive mostly as oral histories in rap. His oeuvre makes an argument for street photography as another constituent element of hip-hop culture, on a par with graffiti, breakdancing or rapping.
“Way before those things were mythologized in rap, in numerous videos, Jamel had captured them,” says Fab 5 Freddy, one of several hip-hop greats Ahearn consults. The lineup of talking heads, who range from Shabazz’s friends and acquaintances to The Source‘s former graffiti editor and KRS-One, offers a broad range of personal and historical takes on his work. These are interspersed with the artist’s own reminiscences and footage of him in action at recent African American Day and Veterans Day parades. I wished that Ahearn, as the director of Wild Style and a fellow documentarian of New York’s street culture in the early 80s, would have turned the camera on himself, at least briefly. In spite of this, and though it lacks any kind of narrative arc, Ahearn’s film makes clear the richness of Shabazz’s photos. Also, it’s impossible to overstate their coolness.
Opens August 2 at BAM