The first thing you see when you enter the exhibit Jamel Shabazz: Eyes on the Street, at the Bronx Museum of the Arts through September 4, is a video of the African-American photographer being interviewed in 2007 by members of the museum’s Teen Council. You may be tempted to skip the video and go straight to the photographs, but there is a payoff for getting comfortable on the bench first. What this caring, charismatic man says about his work provides context for understanding it, perhaps nothing more so than his observation that humility is necessary for what he does. It may be his own humility that enables him to subtly document, even when photographing the most extroverted of his subjects, the varying degrees of humility that life in New York City—maybe life anywhere—forces most of us to adopt.
Eyes on the Street comprises color as well as black-and-white photographs taken on the streets and subways of New York’s five boroughs between 1980 and 2020. Black, Latino, and white people, especially Black people, not necessarily poor but decidedly not rich, gaze at us, or at one another, or at things we can’t see. Each subject is the center of the photograph but not of the world in which the picture is taken. In one photo of an outdoor basketball court, two bare-chested young men stand side by side with arms crossed, one smiling, the other looking defiant, both regarding us; meanwhile, some in the distance look at us while others play ball, oblivious to the viewer as well as to the foregrounded figures. Another photo shows a young man sitting on a stoop with only his head and hands visible, the rest of him blocked from view by an enormous poster-portrait of Malcolm X. In yet another, three girls are seen through the window of a subway train, standing, two smiling, the third—in the center—wearing an unreadable expression, while behind them all a balding, mustached man gazes sideways at us, unimpressed. In still another, a boy with close-cropped hair, wearing a bowtie and a jacket several sizes too large, looks into the camera with a serious expression and salutes as other, blurred figures stroll on the sidewalk behind him. In all the pictures, people act out the story of being themselves, in the brief moments before the camera moves on to someone or something else.
Shabazz, who was born in Brooklyn in 1960, was a graffiti artist before he began taking photographs at fifteen, inspired by a book on black-and-white photography that his father owned. His father did not think much of Shabazz’s photographs but showed him techniques related to light, composition, and developing film. (Using his camera, he says, helped him overcome a stutter.) At sixteen Shabazz dropped out of high school (he later obtained a G.E.D.); soon he joined the military, returning home at age twenty. As he recalls in the Teen Council interview, he was “impacted” by the sight of prostitutes in his neighborhood and talked to them to learn their stories. Empathetic by nature, he was saddened by the gang violence around him, since the participants were people he knew well, sometimes members of rival gangs—who, he came to realize, often refrained from attacking one another out of respect for Shabazz. He worked sixteen-hour days at the jail at Rikers Island, getting to know and like the detainees, for whom he obtained books and arranged contact with lawyers; concerned about the young people in his neighborhood, he talked to them in his off-hours about avoiding drugs and prison, while they, in turn, told him about what was going on in the streets. (A refrain in his interview is his sadness over what drugs, particularly crack, have done to neighborhoods in New York. “Crack made people hard,” he says.)