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.