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.
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.”
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.
This article appears in the May 2023 print edition with the headline “Live Albums.”
When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.