Jamel Shabazz: Albums @Gordon Parks Foundation

JTF (just the facts): An installation of photograph albums in vitrines and photographic reproductions affixed directly to the walls, on view against white walls in the main gallery space (with a single divider). (Installation shots below.)

The following works are included in the show:

  • 15 albums of gelatin silver prints and chromogenic prints, 1975/1980, 1980/1990, 1980/1997, 1980/2000
  • 100 color reproductions
  • 1 reproduction of business card

A monograph of this body of work was published in 2022 by Steidl (here). Hardcover, 19.5×29 cm, 320 pages, with 150 image reproductions. (Cover shot below.)

A concurrent exhibition of this work is on view in the exterior plaza at the Brooklyn Museum (June 2 to September 30, 2023, here).

Comments/Context: The primary function of the humble photo album is simply to provide a place to arrange and store individual photographs. Using old style corners on black paper sheets or plastic pages with tidy slots, the process of creating an album is relatively straightforward. But building such a book of pictures adds an inherent layer of choosing and editing, and the resulting object has the physical permanence of a bound volume, so a photograph album is often more than just a haphazard selection of favorites. In many cases, albums are storehouses of carefully crafted history and memory, where families, friends, trips, life milestones, and casual occasions are made (relatively) permanent.

For Jamel Shabazz, his albums weren’t just a gathering place for the photographs he had made, to be left on a shelf somewhere and looked at once a year. Shabazz instead carried his albums with him as he walked the streets of New York city, actively using them as proof of his identity as a legitimate photographer, and as tension diffusers, conversation starters, and sales tools. By letting a young person he had just met on the street take a look at his albums, he could both establish his position as an artist and draw potential portrait subjects into comfortable dialogue. His handy albums were powerful evidence that countless others (known and not) had already had their photographs taken by him, and that the pictures were consistently stylish, cool, and exciting, brimming with individual personality.

This show, and its related monograph, not only bring together some of Shabazz’s most engaging street portraits, they keep intact the experiential feeling of seeing the images within albums. More than a dozen of the artist’s original albums are shown in vitrines (each with one spread open), and the rest of the images included in the exhibit have been printed at the original one-hour photo processing size and affixed to the walls in double hung groups, not unlike the clusters found on the album pages. There are no enlargements, or prints in frames, keeping the engagement with the work immediate and casual, just like it was in the streets.

Shabazz’s personal backstory is deeply intertwined with his hands-on approach as a photographer. After enlisting in the military at the age of 17 and serving for several years in the late 1970s (his first album has a few images from a posting to West Germany), he returned to New York, where he got a job as a corrections officer at the Rikers Island prison. He worked there for the next two decades (there’s a second album that includes some portraits of inmates made inside the prison itself), in particular seeing firsthand how the crack epidemic of the 1980s was destroying the lives of young men. With photography acting like a “compass” for his life, he speaks of taking on the “assignment” of trying to help as many young people as he could to avoid the brutality and hatred he saw in the prison system. So he took to the streets like an activist, armed with his camera and his credibility as a veteran and current corrections employee, in search of the love, beauty, and humanity to be found there.

Engaging with strangers on the streets of New York city isn’t easy, especially with wary young people, so Shabazz was strategic with his approach. He chose his clothes carefully, offered a formal business card, sometimes carried a chessboard to have impromptu games, and often opened with a greeting that noticed the “greatness” in a particular person or crew. This authentic sincerity and warmth seems to have won over plenty of young New Yorkers, and after his quick portrait encounters on the streets, he would return a few hours later with a copy of the print (his Chinatown processing store provided two prints of each image) to give to his sitters. Along the way, he had a chance to not only provide recognition to these young people, but he had a chance to talk with them about the realities he was seeing on the streets and in the prison system, almost in the mode of a mentor or big brother.

Given the compositional and timing limitations of the streets, Shabazz doesn’t get too clever with his framing or setups; his subjects are centered in the frame and largely looking directly into the camera, and they are posed in the way they wanted to be seen, against the backdrop of whatever happened to be nearby. Friends, couples, and pairs are generally seen horizontally, together or arm-in-arm, and groups of three tend to assemble into loose standing or crouching triangles, with two on the sides around one in the middle. When the person wanted to show off a full body look, Shabazz stepped back to capture a head-to-toe vertical view; when someone wanted something more intimate, he moved in closer, to head and torso portraits or just faces, with a few sensitively seen fathers holding their babies.

Shabazz’s portraits of bigger groups are some of his best, both because they seem genuine and because he seems to have kicked off a sense of competition between the various crews. Many feature a leader in the center, surrounded by members of the group, while others seem minutely choreographed, with paired dance moves, matching poses, and extravagant gestures seemingly crafted with meticulous precision. Each setup is an exercise in impromptu creativity, with the goal being a unique arrangement that one upped whatever was made by a rival or could be found in Shabazz’s albums. The energy in these pictures feels altogether contagious, with wide smiles and cool seriousness available in equal measure.

When a prop was handy, Shabazz tried to make the most of it. He made portraits on the subway, both in the cars and on the platforms. People posed themselves in front of (and on top of) parked cars, near park benches, phone booths, and gumball machines, and holding everything from shopping bags to boomboxes. Graffitied walls provided a colorful backdrop for several images, and when a subject had a particularly stylish hat or set of glasses (or a leather jacket with a fur collar for example), Shabazz arranged the likeness to feature that signature look. Each and every portrait is personal and collaborative, with the subjects given artistic license to craft the expressive identities and attitudes they wanted.

Seen as a group, Shabazz’s portraits and albums certainly offer a back-in-the-day time capsule journey to late 20th century New York, particularly in terms of ephemeral fashions and styles. But his photographs also tap into something far more elemental – the universal human desire for empowerment and self-presentation, especially by young people who may feel overlooked or under appreciated by the larger society around them. These photographs are filled with the trust that is possible when a photographer meets his subjects with warmth and understanding, and encourages the faces and personalities of the streets to show themselves with unabashed joy and spirit. They recognize the power of seeing individuals with grace and respect, and of paying attention to the visual details that help tell their stories.

Collector’s POV: Jamel Shabazz does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely connect directly with the artist via his Instagram page.

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Read more about: Jamel Shabazz, Gordon Parks Foundation, Steidl

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