Jamel Shabazz Street Photographer Is a Portrait of Portraiture


In 2001, street photographer Jamel Shabazz released Back in the Days, a volume of his collected works and a rare portrait of hip-hop’s infancy. The book, which gathers hundreds of photographs captured on the streets of Harlem and beyond between 1980 and 1989, represents an authentic chronicle of the people, fashions, and poses that embodied a lifestyle, articulating a rich history of urban style. Charlie Ahearn’s new documentary, Jamel Shabazz Street Photographer, tells the story of how Back in the Days came to be, and so, in a sense, is a portrait of portraiture. But Ahearn works at a distinct disadvantage: Present to document the book’s reception rather than its genesis, he has no direct access to the vibrant past about which his subjects reminisce, leaving him to merely coast on the iconography of Shabazz’s work. The film, intending perhaps to enrich the photographs with historical context while also testifying to their enduring significance, defers to the expertise of those who lived through the period, lingering in barbershops and on street corners as now-middle-age men extol Shabazz and the veracity of his depictions, meandering through fondly recalled anecdotes of rocking boom boxes and Pumas. Shabazz, we’re told repeatedly, was a genuine fixture of the scene, but witness accounts to the fact are, like much in this film, wholly redundant. “This right here,” KRS-One says of Back in the Days, “tells all the stories.” It is high praise for an important book and an indictment of the superfluous documentary about it. The work speaks for itself.