On ViewThe Bronx Museum
April 6–September 4, 2022
Jamel Shabazz likes to say that his photographs capture people “at their best.” His language is deliberate, and his words sit in their own shadow, leaving implicit and unsaid the dark question of the converse. His lively portraits are stalked by their own context, so many artifacts of a period in which, he admits, “people were witnessing a lot of suffering.” It’s in spite of this, or perhaps because of this, that Shabazz’s images are incandescent with joy.
The largest print in Eyes on the Street, Shabazz’s new exhibition at the Bronx Museum, is a wide, colorful street scene with a referential title. Shot in afternoon light, warmed by late summer hues of yellow and red, and dotted by the bright whites of visors, tanks, and tees, A Great Day in Harlem (1988) shows a dense crowd packing 125th Street during Harlem Week. Curator Antonio Sergio Bessa displays this scene alone, granting it rare prominence. That emphasis is fitting, for the image speaks to the spirit of the show: what emerges in Eyes on the Street is a faithful portrait of a city whose vitality depends on its concentration.
Shabazz’s images, in turn, are often crowded and tight, testaments to the electric alchemy of myriad New Yorkers living atop one another, packed into buses and subways, street fairs and abandoned lots. Eyes on the Street borrows its title from Jane Jacobs, and at times it calls to mind a different phrase she coined: the “sidewalk ballet” of perfect strangers. In search of his own dancers, Shabazz prefers dense streets, what he calls the “nuclei” of neighborhoods: Fulton Mall in Downtown Brooklyn, or Delancey Street on the Lower East Side. On these busy thoroughfares, Shabazz’s posed subjects grin, crouch, preen, and dap. They even—in the case of Training Day (1982), a striking series of boys playing atop a mattress in Brownsville—leap wildly through the air.
It’s difficult to ignore the incongruity in such scenes, as Shabazz’s subjects stand jubilant and lively in settings seemingly war-torn and gray. But if these images tilt towards delight, it’s because Shabazz keeps his finger on the scales. “All my life,” he told the Gordon Parks Foundation in 2020, “all I’ve known is war.” He refers often to the dueling traumas of the crack epidemic and the AIDS crisis, which claimed the lives of friends and subjects alike. In light of this history, he prefers to document the cheerful and the auspicious, “representing pride and dignity,” proffering images of a cultural “counternarrative.” Shabazz is an optimist, and he describes his work with missionary zeal. But at times one feels a certain anachronism in his hopefulness, his sanguine attitude uncommon in an era of political nihilism and cultural pessimism.
Shabazz credits a single book with arousing his social and artistic consciousness, directly motivating his turn to photography. His life, he says, was “changed” by the signed copy of Leonard Freed’s Black in White America that his father kept on the family coffee table. It was this collection which introduced Shabazz to the uses and rhetoric of photography.
Freed’s Harlem photographs, along with those of his Magnum contemporaries, appear often on the pages of another audacious book, this one with unlikely relevance to Shabazz’s project. This is 1969’s Plan for New York City, a sprawling five-volume proposal released by the administration of Mayor John Lindsay that, better than any other text, encapsulates the unbridled political optimism which defined a brief moment in the city’s history.
Lindsay and his planners wanted to make New York equitable, clean, and modern. Their bold proposals ranged from community-controlled school districts to car-free “malls” on Manhattan avenues. Their plan defended cities generally and New York specifically. It extolled New York’s latent “dynamism,” declaring “concentration […] the genius of the City.” New York’s faults, the planners contended, were only the “problems of vitality”; the city was charged with so ineffable a life force that conflict was unavoidable. Even the “new militancy” of its residents—a nod to the Young Lords—marked “a sign of hope and not despair.”
Then the sixties ended, and Lindsay left office a rightwing punchline. “In the end,” assessed Pete Hamill, “New York broke his heart.” Today, the plan reads as almost tragically optimistic. In a contemporary politics so commonly charged by negation, its positive assertion of political possibility is almost unrecognizable.
Eyes on the Street, however, seems to deliver aesthetic proof of the plan’s political argument. Shabazz celebrates, in a man warring with his pit bull on the Lower East Side, in beaming teens on subway platforms, in boomboxes and dirt bikes, in so much noise and aggression, the very dynamism and vitality at the city’s concentrated core. His photographs, taken during years of turmoil, insist on the promise of light. They carry on faith in the fractious city and its people, steeped in an old optimism that, if today unfamiliar, need not be.