Photographic memory: A historical look at Brooklyn with Jamel Shabazz • Brooklyn Paper

Photographic memory: A historical look at Brooklyn with Jamel Shabazz

Make art: Brooklyn-born photographer Jamel Shabazz has made a career out of photographing urban life in the borough and beyond.
Photo by Jamel Shabazz

If you want a street-level view of Brooklyn’s history, just take a look through Jamel Shabazz’s photo albums.

For the past 30 years, the photographer has documented urban life and culture both in Brooklyn and beyond through the lens of his camera. In particular, Shabazz is renowned for capturing African-American communities in New York City through the 1980s and ’90s, a topic he will discuss in an on-stage conversation at the Brooklyn Historical Society on Feb. 20.

“I plan to speak about growing up in Brooklyn during the 1970s and ’80s and how the crack epidemic transformed communities, contributing to the mass incarceration of people,” said Shabazz.

Shabazz was born in the Red Hook Houses and raised in Flatbush. The son of a photographer, his curiosity with the medium began early, at age 15.

“There was something magical and instantaneous about photography that captured my full attention and drew me in upon pressing that shutter and seeing the final results,” Shabazz said

The budding lensman began taking his camera around the streets of Brooklyn, capturing the fashion, music, pride, and lives of the neighborhood inhabitants with the click of a shutter. During this time, Shabazz’s photos documented the emergence and evolution of hip-hop culture — images that have become synonymous with his name. But Shabazz said that was never his intention.

“There has been a great misinterpretation of me as a photographer,” said Shabazz, who gained a worldwide audience in 2001 with the release of his critically acclaimed book, “Back in the Days,” which featured photos of New York City street style and culture in the ’80s.

“Too often I have been called a ‘hip-hop photographer,’ ” he said, “whereas I am a documentarian of African-American culture.”

Nevertheless, hip-hop will almost certainly be a topic that comes up at the Brooklyn Historical Society event, where the photographer will discuss his life and career with Wes Jackson, the founder of the Brooklyn Hip Hop Festival. But that is fine by Shabazz.

“Wes has created an institution that is dedicated to bringing creative minds together in an effort to educate the masses,” said Shabazz.

“Told it First Hand: Conversations with Hip-Hop’s ‘Do-Ers’ ” at the Brooklyn Historical Society [128 Pierrpont St. at Clinton Street in Brooklyn Heights, (718) 222–4111, www.brooklynhistory.org]. Feb. 20 at 7 pm. $5.

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