In the early 1980s, the Brooklyn-born photographer Jamel Shabazz began making trips up to Harlem, with camera in hand.
He had studied James Van Der Zee’s studio photographs of self-fashioned, glamorous black Harlemites during the 1920s Harlem Renaissance and Gordon Parks’s raw documentary images of the neighborhood when it was at a crossroads, in the 1950s and ’60s.
Shabazz would walk along Harlem’s 125th Street, watching for black folks that recalled the dignity and grace of those images. He would stop women, men, and children, and ask, “Can I capture your legacy?”
In a solo exhibition currently open at The Studio Museum in Harlem, “Crossing 125th Street,” a selection of Shabazz’s Harlem photos are on display. Spanning nearly 25 years of street portraits, the show, curated by Eric Booker, reveals the style and complexity of black individuals along Harlem’s grand boulevard.
“That statement, about wanting to record their legacy, was just me being sincere in trying to help them understand what it is I’m trying to do,” recalls Shabazz. “‘Can I take your photograph?’—I felt that I needed something extra. The word ‘Legacy’ [showed] that I see their beauty. It made them more open to allow me to photograph them, because they knew it was genuine.”
Shabazz is widely known for his street-style photography in works like Style and Finesse (2010), a fresh portrait of twin brothers donning gorgeous, matching furs, baggy blue denim jeans, and brown sneakers that subtly complement their oversized coats. Their hands rest under their chins, framing the beauty of their sable faces. The picture captures the singular power of black dress to communicate swagger and the aesthetics of identity and experience.
“A large majority of people I went to school with had style, so it was just common to me,” says Shabazz, who has shot retro-looking fashion campaigns for brands like Puma and Umbro, and inspired a generation of photographers. “What you wore was an outer reflection of who you were as a person to a great degree, so as a photographer, I found that people who manifested their confidence in their appearance were easier to photograph.”
For Shabazz, appearances manifest something substantial about a person’s character. But as fashion has become dominated by labels that construct fantasies of power and wealth for the moneyed class, he feels that half the story is missing.
In “Crossing 125th,” he captures not only styles, but also the social conditions of what the Harlem-born, dapper ’90s rapper Mase called “Harlem World”—a community that took root in upper Manhattan from the American South during the Great Migration and later came from all over the African diaspora, making it the cultural capital of black America.
His images show merchants selling their wares, women dressed alike in solidarity, couples on dates. In one shot, three brothers wear their own fashion designs. In another, a mother on the street wearing a hijab is captured alongside her two boys, who are kitted out in bow-ties and matching grey suits. Everywhere in his photos, black people—who appear on buses, street corners, next to storefronts—are living vivid lives.
These portraits are taken with the aim of showing the Harlem community in a positive light. Shabazz’s desire to capture an upbeat vision of the neighborhood is connected, for the artist, to the late 1960s and early ’70s black power philosophies that the poet Amiri Baraka’s Harlem-based Black Arts Movement championed.
A sole focus on uplifting images has contributed to what some critics have called a “crisis of representation,” in which a palatable image is privileged over representing the subject’s social conditions—in this case, the experience of black Americans. But photos like A Mother’s Love (1989), Big Brother (1995), and Our Future (1997) capture human relationships, determination, and cool, in layered, multidimensional images.
And Shabazz’s photos often indirectly invoke a backdrop of racism, violence, and disenfranchisement. Doing for Self (1992), for instance, an image of an enterprising black man and woman standing in the middle of a busy section of 125th and selling short-sleeved, button-down shirts, alludes to both the entrepreneurial spirit of street vendors and the institutionalized racism that has effectively barred that couple from opportunities to do more than hustle for survival.
A similar complexity is contained within We Love Our Youth (1998). It’s an image of police officers (all individuals of color) standing in front of a sign whose words gives this photo its title.
“In seeing those police officers, I wanted to create something that was different,” says the photographer. “I recognized those officers were sincere and they had a deep connection to the community.” The image complicates the history of police brutality against the black community and today’s Black Lives Matter movement.
Shabazz, who served in the U.S. army, photographs military veterans, too. “I find it’s very important because we have been seen as an unpatriotic people,” he says. He recently traveled to Annapolis, Maryland, to photograph his nephew, who graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy.
The many faces captured by Shabazz also recall the long tradition of the black family photo album. The influence is seen in Double Exposure (1990) and Connected For Life (1995), images that Shabazz calls “Deuce Portraits,” because they capture twins, best friends, or couples who are dressed in the same outfits—signifying black familial power and unity. (Shabazz developed the ongoing series after the late photographer and former photo editor of Vibe Magazine, George Pitts, first observed the theme in his pictures.)
And Shabazz’s images also serve as memorials for Harlem residents who have been killed.
“The introductory image is of a young man in black and gold,” he explains of the first image in “Crossing 125th.” “He’s a drum major, and that young man, I found out by posting his photograph on Instagram a few months ago, was murdered in 1990.” The high school student’s name is Lamell Harper. (According to the comments on that Instagram post, he was killed in a domestic dispute in 1999.)
“He was loved by so many people,” Shabazz says. “When I posted the photograph, it stunned me that a lot of people came forward and said, ‘Wow, Lamell, he’s dead.’”
Shabazz discovered that he had taken one of the last photographs of the black teen “at his very best,” marching in a drumline during Harlem’s annual African American Day Parade. Shabazz titled the image Lamel Harper: Gone But Not Forgotten (1990).
“He was out of Brooklyn and he was a young man that just had a lot of promise and future, and his life was cut down so short,” says Shabazz. “I want his memory to live on, and I would say out of all the photographs in the show, that’s one of my most important images because that young man was so great, and I would’ve never imagined that that would be the very last time I would see him.”