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Reflections from the '80s

By Bene Taschen

Jamel Shabazz, The Righteous Brothers, NYC 1981 Vintage photo Street Photography Metro Brooklyn Black Men 1980s

Shabazz has been visually representing urban New York for the past 40 years. His iconic images capture the lifestyle and vibrant energy of the time like no other. He has become one of the key people to immortalize the New York of the ’80s.

To this day, his quintessential and mesmerizing work influences international fashion trends and global youth culture, and has also served as a source of inspiration for countless films. His secret lies in his care and compassion for people.

Born in 1960 and raised on the tough streets of Red Hook, Brooklyn, during the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War, Shabazz grew up exposed to violent and war-torn visual imagery which gave rise to his deep sense of empathy. Instilled with the urge to speak out and show a different perspective, he first found self-expression in graffiti art and photography with the emergence of the hip-hop movement in the ’70s.

From the age of 15, picking up a camera gave Shabazz a sense of purpose: “It allowed me an opportunity to have a voice and use my voice in a way that can inspire love and unity”. His photographs reveal his daily search for hope, promise, and beauty.

At 17 and unsure of what to do with his life, Shabazz served in the U.S. army in Germany for three years. After returning home in 1980, he spent the next 20 years working as a correctional officer. Driven to help people in his community to stay out of the system, he spent his free time as a proactive street photographer searching for and spreading hope.

For me, having constructive conversations was far more important than the photograph itself.

––Jamel Shabazz
Street Photography Exhibition Qatar Brooklyn Jamel Shabazz 1980 Sha Vintage, Exhibition at The Gallery at VCUarts Qatar
“Shakim was an official brother whose righteous demeanor garnered him a lot of respect and admiration.” - Jamel Shabazz

Jamel Shabazz, 'Sha', Chromogenic print, Fort Greene, Brooklyn, NYC, Early ‘80s, Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Bene Taschen ©JamelShabazz

Top: Jamel Shabazz, 'The Righteous Brothers', NYC 1981, Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Bene Taschen
Street Photography Exhibition Qatar Brooklyn Jamel Shabazz 1980 Undercover Vintage, Exhibition at The Gallery at VCUarts Qatar
"A young officer shows off his goods." - Jamel Shabazz

Jamel Shabazz, 'Undercover', Chromogenic print, East Side, Manhattan, NYC, 1988, Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Bene Taschen ©JamelShabazz
Street Photography Exhibition Qatar Brooklyn Jamel Shabazz 1980 Brooklyn in the House Vintage, Exhibition at The Gallery at VCUarts Qatar
“Delancey Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan was a known shopping hub during much of the 1980s. There you could find the latest urban fashion at a discounted rate. I met these young men from Brooklyn as they made their way down the large stretch of mom and pop stores looking for the best buys.” - Jamel Shabazz

Jamel Shabazz, 'Brooklyn in the House', Chromogenic print, Lower East Side, Manhattan, NYC, 1982 Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Bene Taschen ©JamelShabazz
Street Photography Exhibition Qatar Brooklyn Jamel Shabazz 1980 Radio Man Vintage, Exhibition at The Gallery at VCUarts Qatar
“It was common during the ’80s to see young men carrying around boom boxes. Here, this youngblood from the Flatbush section of Brooklyn poses with his costume boom box while taking in some good rhythms.” - Jamel Shabazz

Jamel Shabazz, 'Radio Man', Chromogenic print, Brooklyn, NYC, 1980 Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Bene Taschen ©JamelShabazz

In the ’80s, New York was a tough environment: violent rival street gangs, drugs, and arrests were part of the city’s dark fabric and gave rise to the artistic expression of social and political injustices of the African American community. Many young people found themselves at difficult crossroads or facing challenging and often violent day-to-day realities. Shabazz wanted to do what he could to ease the tension of his community and help kids stay out of trouble. So he took to the streets with his camera, attracting young people for whom he became a mentor and inspiration, helping with life choices and keeping a positive outlook for the future.

These photographs are his visual diary – a collection of memories, moments, conversations, people, and details. They reflect personal relationships, while giving expression to universal sentiments of all adolescents, such as hope, dreams, self-discovery, and living in the moment.

_____

This essay originally appeared in the catalog of Jamel Shabazz’s solo exhibition Reflections from the ’80s at Hardhitta Gallery. The essay is published here with the permission of the author.

Return to the exhibition page here

@jamelshabazz
jamelshabazz.com

Jamel Shabazz grew up on the streets of Red Hook, Brooklyn and since picking up his first camera at the age of fifteen, he has been visually representing urban life in New York.

He has made a name for himself by capturing some of the most aura-induced and iconic images of the ’80s, depicting a time of transition and the emergence of a new lifestyle and culture whose relevance still resonates today.

As one of the key people to immortalize New York over recent decades, Shabazz’s quintessential and mesmerizing work continues to influence international fashion trends and global youth culture to this day.

With multiple successful publications to his name, Shabazz’s work has been acquired by leading institutions such as the Bronx Museum of the Arts, New York, the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, and the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington D.C.

Street Photography Exhibition Qatar Brooklyn Jamel Shabazz 1980 Rude Boy Vintage, Exhibition at The Gallery at VCUarts Qatar
“This brother was one of the most dapper cats in Flatbush, Brooklyn. Sadly, he would lose his life in a very violent confrontation shortly after this picture was taken.” - Jamel Shabazz

Jamel Shabazz, 'Rude Boy', Chromogenic print, Brooklyn, NYC, 1981 Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Bene Taschen ©JamelShabazz

About the work

Leather jackets, gold chains and boom boxes for the ‘80s, basketball vests and baseball caps in the ‘90s, his subjects are proud to show off their undeniable swagger as they carry out their journeys in and around New York.

Thanks to his instinctive eye, Shabazz’s aura-induced images carry through time the energy and vibrancy of these moments shared with the photographer. It is almost impossible to not smile back at their beaming faces.

Street Photography Exhibition Qatar Brooklyn Jamel Shabazz 1980 New York Vintage, Exhibition at The Gallery at VCUarts Qatar
"Back in the early ’80s these young men were some of the most renowned street photographers in Midtown Manhattan; they specialized in taking Polaroid photographs against custom-made backdrops in and around the Times Square area. In this rare photograph, they are without their cameras." - Jamel Shabazz

Jamel Shabazz, 'Street Photographers', Chromogenic print, Manhattan, NYC 1983, Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Bene Taschen ©JamelShabazz
Street Photography Exhibition Qatar Brooklyn Jamel Shabazz 1980 Unknown Riders Vintage, Exhibition at The Gallery at VCUarts Qatar
"This photograph represents a new stage in my street photography, where I began to create a series of environmental portraits." - Jamel Shabazz

Jamel Shabazz, 'The Unknown Riders', Chromogenic print, Flatbush, Brooklyn, NYC, 1981, Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Bene Taschen ©JamelShabazz
Street Photography Exhibition Qatar Brooklyn Jamel Shabazz 1980 Fly Girl Vintage, Exhibition at The Gallery at VCUarts Qatar
“This photograph was taken in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn back in 1980, a time when women and young girls still wore shoes and dresses.” - Jamel Shabazz

Jamel Shabazz, 'Fly Girl', Chromogenic print, Brownsville, Brooklyn, NYC, 1980 Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Bene Taschen ©JamelShabazz
Street Photography Exhibition Qatar Brooklyn Jamel Shabazz 1980 Radio Man Vintage, Exhibition at The Gallery at VCUarts Qatar
“While walking the avenue in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, my old neighborhood, I came upon these ‘Shorties.’ I immediately approached and engaged them in conversation about the importance of being mindful of various obstacles that are in place to lead them astray. I was genuinely concerned about their future. As time would pass, many of them would encounter the hardships of street life. The one standing on the left whose name is AZ, would survive the streets like a rose in the concrete and become a respected hip-hop artist, using his voice to inspire positivity.” - Jamel Shabazz

Jamel Shabazz 'Young Boys', Chromogenic print, East Flatbush, Brooklyn, NYC, 1981 Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Bene Taschen ©JamelShabazz
*Not in the exhibition
Street Photography Exhibition Qatar Brooklyn Jamel Shabazz Metro 1980 Vintage, Exhibition at The Gallery at VCUarts Qatar
Jamel Shabazz, Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Bene Taschen ©JamelShabazz
Street Photography Exhibition Qatar Brooklyn Jamel Shabazz 1980 Soros for Life Vintage, Exhibition at The Gallery at VCUarts Qatar
“Two members of the historic sorority Zeta Phi Beta Incorporated strike a classic pose while representing the blue and white colors of their organization.” - Jamel Shabazz

Jamel Shabazz, 'Soros for Life', Chromogenic print, Crown Heights, Brooklyn, NYC, 1981, Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Bene Taschen ©JamelShabazz

benetaschen.com

Founded in Cologne in 2011, Galerie Bene Taschen represents some of the world’s leading artist in contemporary photography and painting. The gallery promotes its international artist through participation in key art fairs, such as Paris Photo and The Armory Show in New York City, as well as its extensive exhibition program. Galerie Bene Taschen launched in 2011 with its presentation of works by L.A. photographer Greogry Bojorquez and by Joseph Rodriguez from New York. In 2014, celebrated photographer Miron Zownir from Berlin joined the gallery’s roster. In 2015, American photographers Jamel Shabazz and Arlene Gottfried, both from New York, were added.

Since autumn 2017, the gallery has represented New York-based photographer Jeff Mermelstein and German painter Charlotte Trossbach, and in summer 2018 hosted its first solo exhibition with the works of David LaChapelle. In 2019, the American photographers William Claxton and Larry Fink, as well as the Brazilian photographer Sebastiao Salgado, were introduced to the gallery’s program.

ISSUE No.
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Community Spirit

SEP–NOV
2021
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