Jamel Shabazz: Street Photographer (Charlie Ahearn, 2013, 74 mins.)
Jamel Shabazz: Street Photographer celebrates two of modern America's finest contributions to the world: street photography and hiphop culture.
As his barber friend, Tony, puts it, Shabazz's black and white and color photographs from the 1970s and '80s captured "life in its purest form." On the basis of the slightly faded, if arresting images that dance across the screen, he was also capturing style: Kangol caps, Puma kicks, Lee jeans, Double Goose jackets, and other markers of NYC cool.
Hiphop ambassador Fab 5 Freddy (TV Party, Yo! MTV Raps) describes Shabazz's subjects as "the cool cats on the corners on the street." In that sense, they remind me of the style photographs Amy Arbus, the daughter of Diane Arbus, took for The Village Voice in the 1980s and '90s, except Amy gravitated more towards the punk, new wave, and cabaret set. Shabazz also had a preference for subways, which means that his photographs memorialize graffiti almost as much as they do people—along with the Radio Raheem-size boomboxes of yore.
Through the images, Shabazz talks about his life, his work, and the characters he met along the way. Interestingly, he started out by following the same path as his father, a naval photographer. After a stint in the military, Shabazz became a correctional officer at the infamous facility once name-checked by Jim Carroll, and didn't publish his work until the 1990s in Trace and The Source, which led to gallery shows, and the bestselling anthology, Back in the Days. (It's worth noting that Sharon Jones also worked as a correctional officer at Riker's Island before her music career took off. I suspect there's a lot of untapped talent in that world.)
Director Charlie Ahearn doesn't break the mold with this profile, which he bills as "a video," and nor is that his intention. He allows Shabazz to explain himself, so his subject sets the tone, but his respect for the man comes through loud and clear, and it's hard not to feel the same way in the presence of an inner-city historian who has so much love for the people who surround him—even the crack addicts, the prostitutes, and the juvenile offenders who ended up at his wing on Riker's.
Shabazz also maintains an interest in military veterans, Masons, and members of the Nation of Islam. As influences, he cites Malcolm X and photographer-turned-filmmaker Gordon Parks (The Learning Tree, Shaft). For all the talk of hiphop, though, the documentary is largely devoid of music—other than a few beats by Cresh Fraze and footage from a series of marching bands—and focuses more on regular folks than on celebrities, with the exception of speakers Bobbito Garcia, KRS-One, and Fab 5 Freddy, who also appeared in Ahearn's classic Wild Style.
Jamel Shabazz: Street Photographer played at the SIFF Film Center yesterday (with Ahearn in attendance) for one night only. DVD release TBA. Shabazz also appears in Cheryl Dunn's upcoming street photo survey Everybody Street.