“What I discovered early on as a photographer was, that person who is dressed fashionably tend to be more open to being photographed,” explains Jamel Shabazz to us in an interview about these photos. “Having my Canon AE1 out and properly set, I approached them introducing myself and complimenting them on their beautiful look.” Mr. Shabazz is a legend who doesn’t need an introduction. We’ve featured him several times on The Phoblographer, and every time we do, his stories get better and better.
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These images are part of an exhibit coming to the Museum of the City of NY and will be on view as part of Celebrating the City: Recent Acquisitions from the Joy of Giving Something Foundation. It will be open to the public on February 18th. According to the press release, the exhibition will feature approximately 100 photographs selected from the more than 1,000 images recently gifted to the Museum by the Joy of Giving Something (JGS), a non-profit organization dedicated to the photographic arts.
For Black History Month, we chose to focus on Jamel’s photos. What he gave us is a wonderful insight into the photos.
“During the 1990s, this location went through major renovations, transforming the majority of the landscape. Gone are the adult stores and sleazy theaters, replaced with more family and tourist friendly establishments. In comparison, today’s Times Square looks more like Disneyland.”
Phoblographer: Tell us the story about the women on the train. What made you want to photograph them and what were your interactions? Looking back and thinking about how the NYC subway requires everyone to wear masks, what are your feelings? And today, what would you have possibly done differently if you were to find and photograph these two again?
Jamel Shabazz: The first image was made during the summer of 1981, on an uptown Number 2 train in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. What I discovered early on as a photographer was, that people who are dressed fashionably tend to be more open to being photographed. In the case of these two women, I noticed them immediately when they got on the train, particularly due to their matching outfits. Having my Canon AE1 out and properly set, I approached them introducing myself and complimenting them on their beautiful look. Once I got their trust, I asked if I could photograph them standing up against the pole so that I could get a full view of their outfits; both agreed without reservation.
I then passed on my business card and told them to contact me, but unfortunately, they never did. As I look at the current situation in the NYC Subway system in regards to mask-wearing, it is all too surreal for me, having spent so much time riding the trains and seeing and photographing so many people. Living in this day and time, when everyone is masked up and distancing themselves from each other with suspicion, just feels odd. Looking back at this photo, I would have taken a second one with a completely different pose.
Phoblographer: Tell us the story of the second photo, please. What attracted you to these gents? Did they all instinctively strike the same pose more or less? What was your conversation like with them? Where was this shot? Considering how much NYC has changed, when you look back at this image, what do you think are one of the biggest changes to where this photo was shot?
Jamel Shabazz: I knew these Brothers very well, prior to taking this image. They were all fellow photographers, who specialized in Polaroid photography and made their money photographing folks oftentimes in a regal-looking wicker seat (known as a peacock chair) against a wide range of portable backdrops in the heart of Times Square. Their fee was $3.00 for one framed 4 x 6 print, or 2 for $5.00. The young man on the far right, Shabey (pronounced Sha-bey,) was a master of the craft and is responsible for photographing thousands of folks during much of the 1980s in and around 42nd Street. My brief conversation with them was rooted in photography, as they took a break from taking pictures. Seeing that three of the four of them had hats on, I knew that the hat store would serve as the perfect backdrop. This photo was made on the corner of 42nd Street and 7th Avenue and they are instinctively posed the same way, as they are all members of the same conscious fraternity. During the 1990s, this location went through major renovations, transforming the majority of the landscape. Gone are the adult stores and sleazy theaters, replaced with more family and tourist-friendly establishments. In comparison, today’s Times Square looks more like Disneyland.
All images by Jamel Shabazz and used with permission. Please follow his Instagram.