Street photography likes to dress our wicked impulses in dignified clothes: it gawks, jeers, heckles, and points. It rips out whole fistfuls of urban life, only to lay them before us as the righteous truth. Basking in a city’s unrehearsed harmonies and telling clashes, it can reveal something big and necessary about lives that must be lived in public: the lives of people too hurried or oblivious to look into the lens. Walker Evans rode the subway with a camera lodged in his coat, greedily capturing all the anonymous, unaware faces, pleased by their “naked repose.”
Jamel Shabazz is a kind of anti-Evans. Born in Brooklyn in 1960, he has documented New York street life, largely in the city’s black neighborhoods, with a cheerful guilelessness. Many of his subjects pose, even smile. His photographs are usually the result of consent, not a furtive snapshot—so people comport themselves with a bright, willful crispness, rising to the aesthetic occasion. James Van Der Zee, famous for his princely portraits of Harlem denizens in the 1920s and 1930s, is a clear influence. So, perhaps, are Mary Ellen Mark and Louis Mendes, whom Shabazz has photographed. Sights in the City: New York Street Photographs, a new collection of Shabazz’s work from his beginnings in 1980 to the present, was released a few days after an exhibition of his pictures, “Crossing 125th,” opened at the Studio Museum of Harlem. Though there is no overlap between the book and the show—the latter exhibits only his Harlem photographs—both display Shabazz’s wish to honor and flatter, to fashion touching tributes to a certain kind of black, urban life. But politics makes its brutal intrusions; the joy of the pictures, their poignancy and fellow-feeling, is shot through with defiance.
Shabazz worked as a correctional officer at Rikers Island for twenty years starting in 1983, and has shot both inside and outside prison (though none of his prison images appear in the book). Photography, he has said, performs a dignifying function: to people likely to be locked out of the formal economy and drafted to the swelling ranks of the American inmate population, the knowledge that they are personally, indissolubly significant might be a balm.
Boys in the Hood (1982, Flatbush, Brooklyn) is blunt and frontal: three men—perhaps older teenagers—frown sternly into the camera, the middle one carrying an enormous boom box. A little boy in the foreground is caught midstride, shattering the picture’s frozen masculinity. A Time of Innocence (1980, Flatbush, Brooklyn) depicts five children grinning in the afternoon haze, some crammed into an abandoned shopping cart. The whimsy of that shot is tempered elsewhere by other, more sullen kids: in The East Flatbush Crew (1980, East Flatbush, Brooklyn) four sneakered adolescents regard the camera with varying degrees of suspicion.
Read more at The New York Review of Books.