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Contact High: Photographer Jamel Shabazz On Shooting NYC, Circa 1981

In our series, Contact High: The Stories Behind Hip Hop’s Most Iconic Photographs, writer Vikki Tobak talks with those who have played critical roles in shaping hip hop imagery. They offer a rare glimpse of the creative process that went into the making of each photo.

Getting access to the original and unedited contact sheets, we see the “big picture” being created and can look look directly through the photographer’s lens. Photographers typically don’t show their contact sheets. They’re a visual diary. Film negatives on a roll of analog film allowed these photographers (and now us) to see the full range of images in order to develop the “money shot.”

We caught up with legendary photographer Jamel Shabazz to take us through one of his rarely seen contact sheets in celebration of street portraiture and the very essence of the everyday people and places that make up NYC culture…

New York, 1981

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“The contact sheet has a DNA of it’s own. I can see my thought process.” To view Jamel Shabazz’s photographs is to look into the heart and soul of New York. But to view his contact sheets is to, almost literally, walk alongside the legendary lensman and bear witness to a photographic stream of consciousness that defined the city, looking through Shabazz’s lens at  “errors in lighting and composition, and winning images.” There’s an adage that says “See the light in others and treat them as if that’s all you see.” Shabazz, capturing the style and humanity of defining moments in the New York streets, does exactly that.

Look at his contact sheet and you’ll see life in all of it’s little details. There’s Mr. Magic in Brooklyn in front of the WBLS van. Hear the screech of the subway as young city kids  walk between cars. A young man in a fedora sporting a cast on his arm. Heal up little man. A police officer looking lackadaisical on the subway platform. A sign for The Black Liberation Army. And of course those classic poses. Arms folded, crouching down, confident to the max. 36 frames of perfection. No doubt, his subjects knew exactly how they wanted to be portrayed. There were the visual signifiers: Cazal glasses, shearlings, adidas Superstars, Puma Clydes etc… But it took a keen eye, empathy and curiosity to create great street imagery. Way before “street style” was a thing and subculture became a commodity, Shabazz’s pictures consciously captured New York urban life of the 1980s and beyond. To call Shabazz a provocateur is to only see part of the story.

jamel_shabazz_black_liberation_armyShabazz meanwhile, in his humble assessment, sees himself as a community documentarian, having taken a steady stream of photographs of the New York streets for over 40 years. Growing up in the Red Hook projects and in Flatbush in the ’60s and ’70s, he recalls being surrounded by images—Life magazine and National Geographic were a constant in his home. His father,  a Naval combat photographer, had cameras and equipment around the house. Shabazz became fascinated with engaging in a visual conversation with the city.

At the age of 15, Shabazz borrowed his mother’s Instamatic camera taking it along to junior high school to photograph his friends, planting the seeds of a rich documentation of the black urban experience to come. Following a stint in the army, Shabazz became a corrections officer at Rikers Island in 1983 and worked there for 20 years, photographing the streets after his shift, many of his subjects young men from around the way who Shabazz says “represented my ‘younger brothers’.”

The Shoot

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Jamel Shabazz: I was inclined towards the youth within my immediate community during my early days, mainly because they were the younger brothers and sisters to many of my close associates, who I knew well.  I also felt that they had the greatest risk of losing their lives due to the escalating tension that was going on at the time; pitting certain neighborhoods against each other.  More importantly to me, I was drawn to the individual person, than the style of his/her clothing.

The Shot

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His name is Knowledge. This photo of this young man on the train because of my love for shooting both on trains and within the subway station as a whole, in addition, the available light was always applicable and subject matter was endless.

The Camera Nerd Out

During that time I used a Canon AE1 program with standard 50 mm 1.8 lens. I was trained to use available light, so very rarely would I have a flash unit. In most cases, I always had at least one roll of Kodak Tri X 400 black and white film, and one roll of Fuji 400 color film, both with 36 frames.

The Q+A

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Looking At this contact sheet is like walking through New York with you. So many different tangents. Talk about the WBLS image for example.

The subject on the left side is the worlds famous Mister Magic who was a DJ on the station, I don’t know who the other individual is. The photo was taken Downtown, Brooklyn.

Talk about the street style and culture at that time. Your work captures the whole of hip hop in a very specific way which couldn’t be separated at the time. Now these photos tell a narrative.
I can can honestly say, that the majority of my subjects were very keen on how they wanted to be represented and I wanted them to play a major role in that decision.  They knew that once I recorded their image it was going to be placed in the annals of history, so there was a lot of thought put into every session; from setting up the right pose to finding a suitable backdrop.

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How did you decide where to shoot? Did you always carry a camera with you?

I was very strategic in picking locations to shoot at and I had a number of places that I frequently traveled to on a weekly basis. During the week, I would go to two local high schools; Tilden in the morning and Erasmus in the afternoon.  Both were just minutes away from each other and had an endless number of students that were open to have exchanges with me. After the school session, I would travel downtown Brooklyn, a major conduit that was always full of activity and subjects. There, the famed Albee Square Mall became my primary base of operation,  where one third of my earlier photographs were created. During the weekend, my favorite spot was Times Square;  42nd Street. A place where there was never a dull moment, especially during the summer months.

For many of the urban communities, that was like our Hollywood. Shooting there allowed me to meet and photograph people from all of the five boroughs, as well as those from out of town. 

Another favorite spot was the surrounding area of the lower east side of Manhattan. I would often start my journey around  Bowery Street, where I would converse and photograph prostitutes and men struggling with alcohol addiction. I would  then proceed just a few blocks east to Orchard and Delancey Streets.  Back then, that was a place to not only shop for the latest gear, but a central place to photograph the young shoppers from many New York neighborhoods. The camera became a part of my being. It is my third eye, that is always with me, and at the ready.

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What was the process of looking at the contact sheets like? Did you develop the film yourself? Was there obvious stand-out shots?


For me looking at contact sheets allowed me to see the sequence of events that happen during the creation of a roll of film. The contact sheet has a DNA of it’s own, in that  I can see my thought process, errors in lighting and composition, and winning images. As a young photographer, I wasn’t 100% comfortable in processing my own film, so I would go to a professional lab and get contact sheets made. From that point, I would then make 8 x 10″ prints in my makeshift darkroom.

What made you first want to become a photographer and who were your inspirations?
During my early days, I was inspired by a wide range of photographers; Magnum founder and war photographer Robert Capa, Philip Jones Griffiths, Don McCullins, Tim Page, Leonard Freed, and my father. The majority of my friends were emerging graffiti artists. I found great delight in tagging with them in the beginning, but it was something about taking making images that really resonated with me, just having the ability to freeze a moment in time, and interact with people was rewarding.

Do you still shoot analog?
Yes, I still shoot analog and my primary camera is a Contact G2 range finder, which I use mainly for black and white street photography, it’s a compact camera with a sharp lens.

How do you decide which images to put on Instagram?
My decision to post varies from moment to moment. There are times in which I post images to provoke thought, or it could be nostalgic in nature or  a current issue such as injustice. My primary objective is to post images that inspire feelings of love and hope. Viewing  photography as a universal language, I have at my fingertips and thought process,  the ability to inspire people from around the globe, in a world so full of war and sorrow. Mostly, I feel a great sense of duty to post stimulating images.

Your work is referenced in the new Luke Cage series, somewhat of an homage you could say, what was your reaction?

I first found out about my “so called” likeness in  Luke Cage via social media and that particular scene and exchange does not  represent how I engage my subjects nor how I dress.  With all honesty, when I first saw the subject in question, it reminded me of the character Mars Blackmon in Spike’s ” She Gotta to Have it,” especially  because of the way the photographer approached the subjects.  Nevertheless,  I appreciated seeing my name in the credits, but it would have been great to have seen someone portraying me who truly reflected my process and dress code. With that being said, I am very much a fan of the series.

Follow Jamel Shabazz on Instagram and his website. Check out his monographs Back in the Days (2001), A Time Before Crack (2005) and Represent: Photographs from 1980–2012.

The Contact High Project, conceived by Vikki Tobak and published exclusively on Mass Appeal, will culminate into a book and exhibition. Check out the Contact High website, Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter for more info.

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