Jamel Shabazz is the 2022 recipient of The Gordon Parks Foundation / Steidl Book Prize
Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Shabazz obtained his first camera in the mid-1970s and immediately began making portraits. His camera was also at his side while he worked as an officer at Rikers Island in the 1980s, where he made portraits of inmates that he later shared with their friends and family. Shabazz took his rolls of color film to be processed at a one-hour photo shop in Chinatown that provided two copies of each print. Shabazz typically shared one with his sitters, and the second he organized into changing, thematic albums that function as portfolios to be shared with future sitters. Jamel Shabazz: Albums, the culminating publication of the 2022 Gordon Parks Foundation/Steidl book prize, features Shabazz’s albums, spanning the 1970s through 1990s. The exhibition will feature over a dozen of these albums, all shown for the first time.
On the streets of Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Manhattan in the 1980s and 1990s, it would be easy to spot Jamel Shabazz, photographer. He would have a 35mm camera in hand or around his neck and carry a bag containing rolls of film, a chessboard, and several photo albums. Once he spotted possible subjects—individuals and groups he felt exuded coolness and pride, beauty and confidence, playfulness and warmth—the street would become his photo studio. He would introduce himself, “With all due respect, I’m a photographer,” his business card in hand. “When I look at you, I see greatness. If you don't mind, I'd like to take a photograph of you and your crew.” If there was any hesitation, he would take from his bag a photo album—the kind typically filled with family snapshots. Each album held portraits he had previously taken on the same streets, arranged according to categories Shabazz identified, such as location, number of participants, gender, style, and pose. Within seconds, he was turning the pages of the album to images that he hoped would conjure feelings of identification, empowerment, and even competition for the people he encountered—the act of partaking in Shabazz’s photo shoot encouraged self-expression and spoke of self-determination, influence, strength, style, and attitude. The people he met would want their photograph in his albums; appearing there transformed them from seeing to being seen, from audience to tastemakers. His photograph would be of them and for them.
Once Shabazz gained the trust of his subjects, over the course of a few minutes they would collaboratively choreograph the portrait composition, with the street as backdrop. Their chosen poses and expressions were a form of call and response between the subjects and what they had just seen pictured in the albums—the images sparked a desire to emulate, outdo, or declare affiliation. Hesitation was common among Shabazz’s would-be subjects, but, as he later said, “I had to stop them and get their attention, and the albums did it. if I didn’t have my albums they would probably keep moving.” His request that people pose for a photograph implied admiration of a particular style or attitude, but the promise of including the photograph in one of his albums would reinforce, and validate that style or attitude. The final photograph was not only evidence of that exchange, but also recognition of their freedom to present themselves as they wanted to be seen.
After several interactions, Shabazz took the completed rolls of film to a one-hour photo shop in Chinatown that would provide two prints of each image. Once the prints were ready, within hours or days he would return to the location of the shoot, find his subjects, and give them a copy of their photograph. Shabazz kept the other copy, eventually finding a place for it in one of his albums. The photograph would be circulated and displayed, and shown to future subjects.
–Excerpt from an essay by Michal Raz-Russo, featured in Jamel Shabazz: Albums, published by The Gordon Parks Foundation and Steidl, 2022.
Jamel Shabazz was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. He picked up his first camera at the age of fifteen and began documenting his communities, inspired by the work of photographers such as Leonard Freed, James Van Der Zee, and Gordon Parks. His work has been featured in numerous solo and group exhibitions nationally and internationally, including exhibitions at the Brooklyn Museum, The Studio Museum in Harlem, the J. Paul Getty Museum, and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, among others. These exhibitions have been accompanied by several celebrated publications including Back in the Days (2001) and A Time Before Crack (2005). Shabazz has worked as a teaching artist in institutions ranging from the International Center of Photography to the Bronx Museum’s Teen Council youth program. Shabazz was honored at the 2018 Gordon Parks Foundation Awards.