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Portraits of Joy: The 1980s Street Photography of Jamel Shabazz

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Welcome to In Focus, a feature where writer Hannah Frishberg profiles some of the great street photographers of New York City's past and present.

Native Brooklynite and chronicler of street fashion, Jamel Shabazz has spent the last 40 years photographing New York City. He defines himself as a documentarian of African-American culture, and his photos often exude a pure joy—"I'm drawn to happiness," he says—even though much of his work captures New York during the 1980s crack epidemic, an era often painted as dangerous and depressing. But this is when Shabazz picked up his first camera, at the age of 15. Inspired by his photographer father, he began taking photos of his peers in Flatbush, launching a career chronicling the nascent hip-hop movement and the street fashions it spawned. His work has a wide ranging appeal as to be in the permanent collections of the Whitney and the Bronx Museum of the Arts, as well as having been featured in the Addis Photo Festival in Ethiopia and Cheryll Dunn's 2010 documentary "Everybody Street." He has five photo books out (and one in the making) and a documentary about his life currently cycling through theaters internationally. He's best known for his artistic color portraits, spontaneously taken in the streets, that feel both fresh and full of nostalgia. Shabazz talked with us about his early years, and why he finds New York today so inspiring.

Why do you think street photography is important?
It's intriguing. It's real. There's just so much out there in the street, in the landscape. I've sat in a studio before and it doesn't have the energy of the street. So it's the spontaneity of the street that captures my eye. It's both the subject matter in New York City itself and also the urban landscape, the backdrops. That's why I like the streets. There are so many elements going on at one time.

Do you find that New York's people speak louder than the city itself, in photography?
I think it's the combination of both. In the early days, I focused a lot on people, but as New York started to change, I looked at the contrast between people and landscape. So you'll find that in a lot of my work both have a very important voice. It's a collaboration.

Most of your subjects seem very happy. Do you ask people to smile? Even in your photos from the 1980s, during what could be considered a dark time for New York, everyone in your photos seems animated.
I'm drawn to happiness. I never tell my subjects to smile. I capture them in that state, and as a photographer, that's the key. I approach the person having a good time. If a person's not smiling, that's not good language. Everyone I photograph for the most part was smiling before I approached them. People in my photographs are at peace.

What made you move on from photographing Flatbush, Brooklyn, where you grew up? Was there a single incident, or was it a more general transition?
It was time to move on. I spent my early 20s photographing that community. I was also photographing other areas as well, but Flatbush was my foundation. Of course, most of my subjects were at the local high school. But when they graduated I moved on too, although I would often return.

Your father was also a photographer. What did he think of your work?
My father was a trained documentary photographer in the navy. Once he came home from the navy, he got into wedding photography and the fine arts. For my photography, he was a bit apprehensive at first. He was my first teacher; he felt I needed to be more diverse in my creativity. He was very critical when I started developing my own prints. His critiques made me a better photographer. At first he thought my photos were just snapshots, but as time went on he was very impressed with the work I created.

Although your photos never show it explicitly, do you feel your body of work speaks to drug culture?
I think that people know the time and the community. When I look at the photos, I see the crack epidemic. I see so many who were impacted by crack, both directly and indirectly. I might see a photo of a young man who lost his girlfriend to a crack overdose. There are so many photos centered around crack cocaine, and there are so many other photographs I've captured overtime that show the other side of the drug war.

Do you find New York less inspiring to photograph today than it was a few decades ago?
New York today is just as inspiring. If anything, it's more diverse. Back in the days, I shot one particular community for the most part. But today, with so many people visiting New York, I find it just as interesting as it was 20 or 30 years ago.

Do you pose your subjects?
It depends. Every situation is really unique. In certain situations, a person is so natural I don't feel the need to change everything. Or sometimes I find someone who'll give me permission to photograph them, but they don't know what to do. Twenty or 30 years ago I did a lot of posing, but now I do a lot of documentary photography.

How did you catch the shot title Man and Dog? Were you already in the middle of the street when they started circling each other?
Pretty much. That's a clear result of my father's teaching. He told me, "When you travel, always have your camera out and at the ready." On that particular day, despite the rain, I knew something was going to happen. So I positioned myself at the right angle and all of a sudden he started to lift the dog off the street. It was being in the right place at the right time.

What about the shot of the man on the unicycle?
That's another example of just being ready all the time. I was on 42nd Street with my camera out, and saw him and the picture just made sense. It's pretty much a Saturday night on 42nd Street.

And the series of the boys doing flips on the mattress?
Just like the man swinging the dog, those photographs were taken when my father was just starting to teach me the craft of photography. That particular photograph was taken in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn. I saw these kids having fun on the mattress. I took three shots. Normally I just take one shot, but that day I took three very unique photographs, and each one was a winner. Anticipate the moment.

If you had to pick - the subway or the streets?
It's a balance between the two. I'm in favor of the streets because they're a lot more vast and there's a lot more to see. The subway became like my studio for fashion.

["New York Underground," Brooklyn, 1980.]

Do you do anything different when you're photographing underground?
Not really. My process is pretty much the same. I have my camera out and at the ready. The only easy part about the subway is that the light is the same; on the streets it's changing. Most of the subway cars have similar lights, but when you're above ground you've got to study the light.

You began photographing when you turned 15. What was your first camera?
My very first camera was my mother's cheap Kodak 110. It was a plastic camera. It was a small compact camera. Maybe 9 inches. It might have been smaller. Very small, very light. It was effective for that time.

What kind of camera do you use now?
I use a wide range of cameras. My primary camera is a Canon 5D, and I have a Contact G2, which I use for documentary photography.

· Jamel Shabazz [official]
· In Focus archives [Curbed]