Scott Schuman may be the most popular fashion street photographer today, but back in the day another more conspicuous artist was busy documenting the street fashion of Brooklyn. The old school street photography images that Jamel Shabazz took some 30 years ago resonate with the same kind of passion and energy found in today's digital images.
Jamel Shabazz was first inspired to take photographs after viewing the photographs of a local gang member. Shabazz's father, also a photographer, shared his images during his time with the Navy as well. The possibility of creating an image out nothing as well as being able to capture far-away cultures and peoples excited the young Shabazz.
The soon-to-be street photographer picked up his camera at the age of 15 and took his first images which were of his childhood friends in Brooklyn. These first portraits eventually turned into more serious documentations of the people around him. Shabazz read up on the books of Malcolm X and decided that his images should be more than just pretty pictures of the people he met; he believed that his pictures should be a statement of the world that he lived in. Soon, he was going out and taking photographs of the vibrant and sometimes not-so-pretty streets of New York City.
Shabazz is most famous for his collection, Back in the Days, a visual documentary of 1980s Brooklyn fashion. His amazingly colorful and soulful images show the birth of the Hip-Hop movement: B-boys with shell-toe Adidas sneakers, fuzzy Kangol caps and thick black Cazal eyeglasses. Shabazz also incorporated the surrounding elements into his images, from vandalized subway trains to large stereo boomboxes.
Unlike many street photographers before and after him, Shabazz made it a point to get to know his subjects. Before taking their portraits, he would introduce himself and tell them about his photographs. He would say, "Excuse me, brother. My name is Jamel Shabazz and I’m a photographer. When I see you, I see greatness. I see the future.”
Shabazz's photographs are filled with warmth and emotion not only because of the radical fashion of that decade, but more importantly because of the people that really make the photos what they are. While his book "Back in the Days" might be advertised as a compendium of 1980s Brooklyn fashion, it is really a visual immersion of the beauty of the people during that time.
In his own words, Shabazz describes his style: “Once I began photographing my peers, then I realized the magic it was to make people feel good. It gave me an opportunity to tell people they were beautiful and special. And I saw how smiles resonated from those words, those compliments. Those interactions really encouraged me to move forward.” In all his images, Shabazz aimed to try to make people feel good about themselves. Thirty years on, it's clear that he succeeded in that goal.
This is Jamel Shabazz's website. More old school street photography in his book Back in the Days. An updated version Back in the Days Remix: 10th Anniversary Edition was released a few months ago. Don't forget his other book A Time Before Crack.