Vogue MagazineJamel Shabazz Interview
7 Questions for an Accidental Pioneer of Street Style Photography
APRIL 12, 2016 6:13 PM by KRISTIN ANDERSON
Long before “street style” as we now know it, photographer Jamel Shabazz’s pictures captured a vital slice of urban life, of ’80s New York pre-Broken Windows. His prodigious, matter-of-fact photos are praised in equal measure as both the purview of hip-hop photography and street style—Shabazz, for his part, sees himself as first and foremost a documentarian of his community. It’s little wonder, though, that his images are a regular touchstone among fashion types. (He’s been name-checked in show notes by the likes of Dsquared2 and Lacoste; The Sartorialist’s Scott Schuman is also an avowed fan.) Shabazz’s subjects are ineffably, enviably, capital-C cool, speaking to an era before subcultures were commodified and before style could be so readily bought, or furnished by brands just in time for Fashion Week. In his photos, graffiti artists, break-dancers, straphangers, dandies, and everyone in between commingle against the backdrop of Brooklyn.
We caught up with Shabazz to talk about his medium, Instagram, and why he doesn’t follow fashion.
What was your approach like during those days, and how has it evolved?
My father was a photographer when he was in the Navy during the 1950s, so as a child growing up in the 1960s, I was always surrounded with images—both his photos and the publications that he had within our home. So during that time as a young child, I developed a great interest in photography really by way of Lifemagazine and National Geographic. I picked up a camera at about 15, while in junior high school. I borrowed my mother’s camera; I would take her camera to my junior high school and started photographing my friends. Then a couple of years later I went into the military, and being away from home, stationed for three years in Germany, my life really started to transform. I got deeper into photography overseas, and during the summer of 1980 I returned home to the United States with a new camera and with a new vision to try to capture a part of my life that was gone. During the time period in which I left, so much had changed in my community, so I came back thirsting to catch up with people and, in a sense, to establish a vision diary—photograph people and engage in conversation about what had been going on. The camera just became a sidearm that allowed me to communicate with a lot of young people. The photographs became an evidence of the relationships.
When you were shooting people’s personal style, what drew you to your subjects?
Initially, it was my friends, because I had the closest relationships with them, and everyone was already fashionable, so that gave me the idea to approach people and capture the fashion. Later on, I was drawn to people who seemed to have a lot of influence, because the time that we were living in, in the ’80s, there was a lot of tension in certain areas, so I strove to connect with men or organizations that represented strength or influence. I would go for them and I would start to engage them in conversation and photograph them later on, but I was drawn to this strength and their ability to influence people in a positive direction. Or they might have been struggling on the path of life and I came to guide or serve as a mentor to a lot of these young men. That’s why a lot of people in my photographs are a couple of years younger than me, because they represented my younger brothers. That was a generation where a lot of young men, about three or four years younger than me, were dying in the streets. That was my main focus, and I would place myself in locations where a lot of these young men would be. Downtown Brooklyn in the 1980s was that nucleus, that hub, that drew men from all areas of Brooklyn. That became my studio for many years.
How do you feel about New York from a creative standpoint today, as opposed to when you were starting out in your career? Does it still inspire you in the same way?
I’m always inspired, but I’m not really shooting these days, so it’s hard to say. I’m observing. The days of me going out there and shooting has changed over the past couple of years. It’s a multicultural society, so I find that what I see today is a combination of different cultures and influence, both here and abroad. We have a mix of various people coming in from Russia, from China, from Japan, from Senegal, from Ghana, so you have this multicultural society but also fashion. That’s an evolution. Back when I grew up, we all had a pretty similar style. The men wore Puma or Adidas, Kangol hats, and it was a similar style that everybody wore that was fashionable mainly on the East Coast. It was very rare if you’d see someone differ from that; you look at my photographs, that really captures the generation of those men and women living in New York City in the 1980s. You could be from Queens or Brooklyn, or Manhattan or the Bronx—style was very similar. Then you had people from New Jersey who would come and emulate [that]. So back then, New York style was really East Coast style. California, if you look at old photos from N.W.A. and a lot of those groups from the West Coast, their style was entirely different from New York. But today, through social media, everybody looks the same to a degree. You could look at an urban kid from Brooklyn, and he looks like one from California; you look at kids from Japan, and they look like kids from the Bronx. Social media has [led] people to follow trends. Through Instagram, these images are being generated every second of the day.
What is your take on Instagram—does it interest you as a platform?
It doesn’t really interest me at this time, because I’ve been so consumed for the past years traveling, I haven’t really had time to participate in it. It’s a beautiful thing, but for me, at this stage in my life, I’ve shot so much, what I’m doing now is just organizing my work. I can organize my work best by publishing books. For young, aspiring photographers today, it’s a good way to get exposure.
As a professional photographer, you appreciate the egalitarian aspect, though?
It’s a beautiful thing because now they have the opportunity to document their existence in so many different ways, and it gives me an opportunity to sit back and watch things unfold in front of my eyes in real time. Never before in the history of society has there been such an intrigue with photography, so it’s all good.
Your work captures an amazingly vital crossroads of culture—graffiti, hip-hop, break-dancing. How do you think those things informed the fashion of the time, and vice versa?
During the era of conscious rap and hip-hop, artists like KRS-One or Queen Latifah, Public Enemy, it was about culture, so I saw a lot of racial pride, I saw people wearing traditional African garments, kente cloth—celebrating their history and culture. I thought that was a very interesting time. It wasn’t about a lot of the bling that would take place later on in the 1990s. Of course, when crack cocaine was introduced, a lot of fashion changed [and] bling became very status-driven. Due to the crack epidemic, it started to change as well. [Before] it was always about being dapper and unique, having your clothes designed if you were that type of person. The clothing that you wore reflected who you were to a degree. Oftentimes people dress well and they conduct themselves in a certain way. You might not have the best gear, but you had the skill and the talent. When LL Cool J came out with his style, to me that represented a traditional New York style with the Kangol hat, the Adidas, the chain, and Run-D.M.C. with their [similar] style—it inspired people to wear the Adidas, it inspired people to wear the Kangol. When Eric B. & Rakim came out with that look, that inspired a lot of people to dress that way. The recording artists were like torchlights for young people in terms of fashion, because they represented status and power. Music videos, when they came out, forget it—that really transformed fashion on a global level, these million-dollar videos where the guys are in mansions and have the finest clothes and cars and women, and it really represented fashion in a whole other way. No one did it better, really, than Puffy. He took it to the next level when he transitioned from traditional urban style to suits and dressing fly.
How do you feel about the way that fashion has—in equal measure—taken inspiration from streetwear and also outright co-opted it?
I haven’t paid it no mind in a long time, to be honest with you. I’ve been designing my own clothes for about 30 years. I’ve created most of the clothes that I wear, just to be different. That’s what we did in the ’70s. We took great pride in going to the fabric store, getting superfine wool, and having our tailor design clothes for us. Especially with me and my height, I like the way tailor-made clothing felt. So I have my own way of dressing, and I always went against the grain. I admire the style out there, no doubt about it. I could say certain things about what I see today, but I prefer not to. My biggest concern is not fashion, my biggest concern is war and where we’re going as a society. For too long, the outer has been what people judge people by, but in this day and time, there are a lot of people losing their jobs, and they can’t concern themselves with fashion and being fashionable, so my lens is more turned toward those people now. I’m often viewed as a hip-hop photographer, but I’m a social documentarian, and that’s where my heart is at. Fashion plays a role in my work, but for me it’s sort of higher-level than that. It’s really about the individual who’s in clothes that I look at—more about the inner soul than the outer.