In the mid ‘70s and early ‘80s, street photographer Jamel Shabazz’s lens captured New York’s defiant urban youth culture. Taken when he was a teen living in Brooklyn, a period when hip-hop and b-boy culture was in its infancy, the photos show how personal style can be the ultimate form of self-expression. Eventually, the photos formed the acclaimed book Back in the Days. Now, Shabazz is revisiting his classic work with a special 10th Anniversary edition, Back in the Days Remix (Powerhouse), as well as a documentary, Jamel Shabazz: Street Photographer, which premiered yesterday at BAM.
“Back in the Days is the book that built the foundation that I stand on today,” says Shabazz. “I am grateful to all of the people in that particular book who had faith in me and allowed me to record their history, thus allowing their legacy to be preserved for generations to see.” We had the chance to talk to Shabazz about the book that launched his career, his new documentary, and his love for Brooklyn.
What initially drew you to taking pictures? I gravitated towards photography after viewing hundreds of photographs from a prominent member of a local Brooklyn gang. I became inspired to want to make images, and it became a passion, once I saw the magic I was able to create. Although my earliest memories of photography came from viewing my father’s photographs that he made while in the Navy. There were images of Naval and Marine operations, along with scenic photos from various countries that he traveled to, while stationed aboard the USS Intrepid during the 1950s. During my youth, I was inspired by the work of Leonard Freed, Gordon Parks, and countless nameless photographers who shot for National Geographic and Stern magazines.
You were 15 when you first got your hands on a camera. That must have been a defining moment in your life. My first camera was actually borrowed from my mother, which was a Kodak instamatic 126 camera, that used cube shape bulbs resembling ice cubes. In the beginning, I would use my mother’s leftover film that she had in the camera, but as time went on I would take collections from my friends and promise them copies once the film was developed.
You’ve gained international recognition with Back in the Days. What was the inspiration behind this book, and what can we expect from the 10th Anniversary edition, Back in the Days Remix? My inspiration for creating Back in the Days was a result of a series of ongoing conversations I would have with my co-workers who grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s. They cherished those days, and from these conversations, I decided to create a book that would be full of memoires that we all could reflect on. The only real vision I had at that time was to create a visual diary of all the people I would encounter during my travels.
The idea to do the The Remix was formulated by Craig Cohen, President of Powerhouse books. Recognizing that Back in the Days was approaching its 10th anniversary, Craig felt that a revised issue with new images and text would be a great way of honoring the book. What’s special to me is the two new color collages, the additional thirty photographs, and the text by professor Carlton Usher, who grew up in my neighborhood of East Flatbush, Brooklyn, and has a comprehensive understanding of the history of both the 1970s and 80s as an active participant.
Did you have any favorite spots to scout subjects? I had a series of locations, but my main spots were downtown Brooklyn at the Albee Square Mall, Prospect Park, and Times Square.
In Back in the Days, Brooklyn plays a prominent part in your images. What do you make of the borough today? The camera is the compass that enabled me to meet and document a wide range of people not only in Brooklyn, but in major cities around the world. Brooklyn is the cornerstone for most of my earlier work, and the spirit of Brooklyn is in my DNA. My love for that particular borough stems from coming of age there, and it is in Brooklyn that I learned my craft, on my journey towards enlightenment. At times I feel like I am in the Twilight Zone, since many places are no longer familiar to me and rarely do I run across the people I photographed.
Street style photographers are ubiquitous in NY today, but back then it wasn’t the case. Were people open to you taking their picture? The majority of people were open to me recording their history. Once the book was released, there was a great degree of joy knowing that someone had documented them, along with their generation.
You’ve been credited with documenting the birth of hip-hop. What did you make of it then? At the time, I didn’t realize that I was documenting the birth of hip-hop. For me, I was just documenting the world that I lived in and that was very intriguing. Hip-hop today is a multi-billion dollar industry that has created countless opportunities for so many people both here and abroad. It has now become a universal language that has gone beyond the communities it came from.
Why do you think these photographs have become so timeless? For the people who grew up during the late ‘70s and ‘80s, in NY, it’s almost like looking back at a high school yearbook of friends and family. Another reason I think a lot of people are drawn to Back in the Days is largely because of the fashion exhibited in the photos. The ‘80s was a period in time when a lot of young people from my community took great pride in looking good and representing themselves in a dignified manner.
In addition to the release of Back in the Days Remix, you have a documentary, Jamel Shabazz: Street Photographer that takes a look at the stories behind some of your work at that era. I met Charlie back in 2002 when I was photographing him for a magazine, during the course of our conversation, I asked Charlie if he would be interested in doing a featured film based on my first book Back in the Days, he explained to me that it would be too complicated at the moment to do. The conversation then shifted to doing a documentary based on my work. About a year later, we set the wheel in motion and went to work. Working with Charlie was a great learning experience. During the years that we worked with one another I gained a wealth of knowledge from him in the technique of film making these moments were priceless.
What are you hoping people come away with after watching the movie? It’s very hard to say, because there is so much to the story that needs to be shared. In revisiting it, I feel that I did not go as deep as I should have in the film, so there are certain pieces of the puzzle that are incomplete. However, the images and personal stories by many of the contributors give balance to the film. Hopefully, in time I will be able to revisit this documentary, I am already thinking about a part two called Straight No Chaser. There is so much to the story, I can no longer hold back and tell fragments of such an important time in my life. I am confident that the artist talk after the movie premiere at BAM will shine even greater light on the film.