Photos: (l.) The Brothers, 1988. Digital chromogenic print, 16 × 20 in. Courtesy the artist. (r.) Double Exposure, 1990. Digital chromogenic print, 16 × 20 in. Courtesy the artist.
Harlem is the heart and soul of New York, the epicenter of African-American life, culture, history, and hustle. At the turn of the twentieth-century, this vast tract of land in upper Manhattan quickly became the destination for black folks leaving the South en masse during the Great Migration. Here, folks created a town within a city entirely its own, dominating the wide boulevards and stately homes with a style and approach to life that combined the very best of the North and the South.
It was during this first wave that the Harlem Renaissance was born, giving rise to a flourishing movement of a wide array of arts from literature, poetry, and drama to music, dance, and theater. Visual artists also took root, creating images that bespoke not just the times but also the rich and textured history of African-American life as seen through the eyes of the people.
Among the great artists of the era was James Van DerZee, one of the premier photographers of the twentieth century. During the 1920 and ‘30s, he crafted a compelling pictures of Harlem’s emerging middle class that employed the elements of traditional Victorian portraiture—but took them to new heights but connecting with the spirit of his subjects and bringing out their glamorous inner light.
Van DerZee’s photographs came to define Harlem in a way that few other photographers ever could, and in doing so, he influenced generations to come—including the great Jamel Shabazz. Hailing from Brooklyn, Shabazz grew up during the Civil Rights Movement and came of age during “benign neglect,” when the Federal government abandoned New York, leaving African-American neighborhoods to crumble under the weight of systemic corruption.
Many who could afford to leave fled to the suburbs, leaving local residents to fend for themselves. But it was precisely within this vacuum that, once again, arts and culture flourished. When Shabazz was not working as a Corrections Officer for the New York Police Department, he walked the streets of his native New York armed with his weapon of choice: a Canon AE1 SKR camera. He traveled throughout Brooklyn and Manhattan, on a mission to connect with a new generation of African American men, women, and children who represented the best of city life.
No matter where he went, Shabazz liked to return his favorite stomping grounds, which included 125th Street, the legendary thoroughfare that is the central artery that flows through the heart of Harlem. Here he looked for people who displayed respect, power, and knowledge of self, approached them for conversation in order to establish a powerful emotional and spiritual connection. After speaking with them, he would proceed to take their portrait, so that when you look in their eyes, what you see is how they feel after speaking with Jamel Shabazz.
A selection of these photographs is on view in Jamel Shabazz: Crossing 125th at the Studio Museum in Harlem, now through August 27, 2017. Organized by Eric Booker, Exhibition Coordinator, the exhibition takes from the late 1980s to the present day, looking at life on the street in all the forms it takes. A profound sense of family, community, sister and brotherhood is the golden thread that runs through Shabazz’s photographs; though these people may be strangers to us, their love, pride, and dignity shines through, pulling us close, enveloping us with a feeling of unity and belonging to the group. Because that’s the nature of the place: 125th Street is where you can simply be yourself.
“I’ve always had a fixation with 125th Street, ever since seeing the early photographs from the Harlem Renaissance back during the turn of the century. It was through the lens of James Van DerZee that forged my personal interest in documenting Harlem,” Shabazz tells Crave. “125th Street became the main port of entry that would bring me into the heart of this iconic destination, a place were many great figures walked and made history.”
It is this history that comes alive in each of his photographs, ripe with the potency of the human spirit and the will to triumph.
Miss Rosen is a journalist covering art, photography, culture, and books. Her byline has appeared in L’Uomo Vogue, Vogue Online, Whitewall, The Undefeated, Dazed Digital, Jocks and Nerds, and L’Oeil de la Photographie. Follow her on Twitter @Miss_Rosen.