photo of physical photo album open to spread with 10 photos of people in various groupings

Street Photography From ’80s and ’90s New York

Armed with his camera and a collection of albums, Jamel Shabazz documented Black life in the city.

In 1980, after three years in the U.S. Army, Jamel Shabazz returned home, in his words, “to a war.” “I came home to a situation where a lot of people were dying at the hands of other young people,” he told me. In an era when the crack epidemic and mass incarceration were tearing families and neighborhoods apart, Shabazz saw photography as a form of “visual medicine.” Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, he traversed the streets of New York City armed with a 35-mm camera, his business card, a chessboard, and several photo albums, which he would produce to build trust with his subjects by offering evidence of his past work.

photo of man in brown plaid shirt holding photo album next to subway train
Jamel Shabazz
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The albums were more than just a useful street-side tool; for Shabazz, they were also cherished objects of family heritage. Since the late 1800s, generations of his southern relatives had passed down treasured household photo albums. Shabazz’s father, a photographer in the Navy during the 1950s, had transformed their Red Hook, Brooklyn, apartment into a weekend studio and spent hours compiling albums and making collages while his son watched. “All of my uncles had photo albums,” Shabazz said. “When I would go to their homes, and my grandfather’s house, the first thing I would do was hit the photo album up, because it allowed me to time-travel and get a greater understanding of who they were.”

2 photos: man with large glasses and sideways cap; 3 people posing together on city sidewalk, one kneeling at center
photo of 3 people on city street, one holding a large 3-ring album
Jamel Shabazz

Shabazz’s own photographs captured the young, stylish men and women he met on his walks, at work and at play, posed yet relaxed. The images in a new book, Jamel Shabazz: Albums—presented in a format that allows viewers to experience how his subjects might have first encountered his work—are testament both to these personal rituals and histories and to the improvisational collectives of Black and brown faces that Shabazz so carefully created and preserved, persisting in spite of their precarity.

photo of 5 people in front of lit storefront looking at large album's pages at night
photo of physical photo album open to page with 10 photos of people in various groupings
Jamel Shabazz

This article appears in the May 2023 print edition with the headline “Live Albums.”

By Peter W. Kunhardt, Jr. and Michal Raz-Russo, editors

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