Whitehot Magazine

Book Review: PIECES OF A MAN - Jamel Shabazz

Jamel Shabazz, Untitled. NYC. Circa 1985


By Jamel Shabazz
316 Pages
Artvoices Books Publishing 2023


Not so long ago, it was unusual to see the common Black man, woman, or child reflected through the eyes of a photographer, particularly one who truly understood their subject. Not just contextually or in the moment, but rather, the external and internal knowledge of what fashions a person based on race, social class, location, and a period in timea knowledge that can only come from a shared, lived connection. Photographer Jamel Shabazz was perfectly situated in 1980s New York to be a documentarian for Black and Latinx youth. This was a population that Reaganomics (Reaganism is Black Genocide, Downtown Brooklyn, 1982) and an almost bankrupt city would forget until a crack epidemic, and the ensuing war on drugs projected them through a lens of criminality. Even disgraced former U.S. President Donald Trump infamously led the charge to bring back the death penalty for the Central Park 5, a group of five Black and Latino youth who were accused and convicted, under questionable evidence, for the brutal 1989 rape of a jogger in Central Park. These sorts of images of Black and Brown youth, monsters devoid of humanity, were proliferated in print and broadcast media and made it difficult for the average frightened New Yorker of that time to empathize with them.

Hope and Promise Montreal, Quebec 2014

In the photobook “PIECES OF A MAN”, Shabazz’s photos become a time capsule that illuminates and provides a deeper context for the lives of his subjects between 1980 and 2015. There is no makeup or hint of what you could call formal modeling at play, and Shabazz doesn’t need to rely on a stylist. The people in his camera frame come with their own sense of fashion. In the 1980s and 90s, this is fueled by a heady mix of NYC street culture that includes the fashion sensibilities and attitude of Hip-hop (Inside the Albee Square Mall, Brooklyn, 1984), graffiti and mural art (Writing on the Wall, 1990), a prisoner’s perspective of the industrial prison complex (Central Booking NYC, 1997), motorbike culture (The Sisters 1985), and the impact of the tightening noose of crack cocaine (And Then Came Crack, Flatbush, Brooklyn, 1983), police presence (Busted, Flatbush Brooklyn, 1982), and structural decay of a city in the midst of a boom/bust cycle in reverse. There is more that might be lost when viewed from the standpoint of an outsider photographer in search of the sensational, in places with people that help confirm sellable biases. Today, we call it clickbait, but the power of a clicking camera still holds power in the hands of whoever wields it.

Jamel Shabazz, When Two Worlds Meet, NYC, 2013

Where there is hardship, there must be faith to endure it, and Shabazz captures that element through the smiling faces of inner-city youth and their pride in a subculture-inspired fashion moment. Shearling coats, Gazelles, and Lees adorn people who would become the prototype for a marketable look (Partners 1980), even while the reality that birthed the style would be watered down, autotuned, and eventually, co-opted by the corporations that initially resisted it. Shabazz turns the urban environment into a canvas of tagged train cars where the reek of stale urine and sharpies (Triple Darkness 1980) almost emanate from the photo, while at the same time, through the embrace of lovers (Underground Love, NYC) and camaraderie of laughing teen girls (Rush hour 1980) those same trains become the cracks where the proverbial light come in. But also doting fathers (Father and Son, Downtown, Brooklyn, 1985), proud mothers

Jamel Shabazz, And then Came Crack, Flatbush Brooklyn 1983

(A Mother’s Love, 1995), mischievous teens (Joy Riding, Flatbush, Brooklyn, 1988), and the awe of a child finding their happy place (My Day Will Come Flatbush, Brooklyn, 1980) staring out the window of a bus in Flatbush.

It may be difficult to grasp in this age of Instagram attention, where cheap “influence” can be exercised through the color filter of an amateur’s camera phone, and democracies feel threatened by TikTok marketing schemes lobbed into an algorithm feed like hand grenades.

Before Tyler Mitchell snapped Beyonce for the cover of Vogue magazine, or the art market began to clamor for the Black figure in all its forms, Jamel Shabazz was always right here. In his later 2000s series of work, Shabazz expanded the scope of his view, becoming global in his appreciation of local cultures from the rest of the U.S. to Canada, the Caribbean, Africa, and beyond. He is a journalist-artist with a neutrality that allows the viewer to make up their own minds about what they are seeing and how they should feel and enough depth of emotion in each photo to do so. In the 80s and 90s, Shabazz showed us the lesser-known side of America that would define cool in a pop culture sense for the next three decades. In the early to mid-aughts, he focused on an America divided and united, self-aware and confused, and at war with war (No More Killing, Washington, D.C., 2003), or oftentimes, just at war with itself.

This is ultimately what differentiates Shabazz from a street fashion photographer. Shabazz is more closely aligned with forebears like James Van Der Zee (Church Ladies, NYC, 2005) and Gordon Parks (Merchants of Death, NYC), both Black 20th Century photographers who brought intelligence and insight through images of ordinary citizens that remind us that “Black America” is America, with all its joy, pain, tribulations and promise. WM



Byron Armstrong

Byron Armstrong is an award-winning freelance journalist and writer who investigates the intersections between arts and culture, lifestyle, and politics. Find him on Instagram @thebyproduct and on Linkedin https://www.linkedin.com/in/byron-armstrong

view all articles from this author