arts

Photographer Jamel Shabazz's radiant love letter to the New York City subway

Published 11th June 2020
Jamel Shabazz's archive of images of the New York City subway go back to the 1980s, when he was in his twenties and starting out as a photographer.
Credit: Jamel Shabazz
Photographer Jamel Shabazz's radiant love letter to the New York City subway
Written by Jacqui Palumbo, CNN
The subway system in New York City snakes through each of its five boroughs, connecting residents via hundreds of miles of electrified tracks. Just as passengers have been accustomed to the idiosyncrasies of the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) -- including its frequent delays and signal malfunctions -- so too have they become familiar with art and performing arts within the trains and stations. In the 1980s, in particular, as street art exploded around the city, the steel train cars became the canvases for graffiti artists.
Brooklyn-born photographer Jamel Shabazz, who was in his 20s at the time, documented the diversity of New York City's cast of characters against a backdrop of scrawled spray paint, tiled station walls and the uniform plastic seating of train cars and buses. In these enclosed, transitory spaces, Shabazz photographed everything from black youth culture, fashionable straphangers and eccentric musical performers, to the tired commuters and homeless population who filled the subway's seats.
Shabazz often captured the city's youth culture against a backdrop of graffiti art.
Shabazz often captured the city's youth culture against a backdrop of graffiti art. Credit: Jamel Shabazz
"What I loved about the trains back then was the fact there was endless subject matter to photograph and the (setting) allowed me to work with available light," the photographer said over email. "Since I focused on documenting young people, high school kids were ever present, and on the weekends all of the trains (in Brooklyn) going into the city were full of youth headed to Times Square."
Shabazz has an eye for both documentary and fashion images, finding stylish residents on platforms and in trains.
Shabazz has an eye for both documentary and fashion images, finding stylish residents on platforms and in trains. Credit: Jamel Shabazz
The photographer has recently gathered a survey of the images, which span four decades, into a new photo book, "City Metro." The black-and-white and color images chronicle Shabazz's often joyful and serendipitous encounters as the city itself weathered periods of unrest and social change -- from the crack cocaine epidemic in the 1980s to the waves of gentrification that saw wealthy residents and developments begin to alter the city's neighborhoods.
Shabazz formed his career in a thriving era of street photography while fellow documentarians including Bruce Gilden, Jay Maisel and Susan Meiselas roamed the city. But Shabazz is one of the few black voices who has been recognized from that period; his influences include the photojournalist Gordon Parks and the portrait photographer James Van Der Zee.
Shabazz recalled early mornings during rush hour in the 1980s, when the tagged train cars would appear as "a moving art show."
"Graffiti artists spent their weekends painting the trains parked in the yards and delighted in introducing their masterpieces during the beginning of the work week," he said. "As each train car appeared many of them would be painted in vibrant, 3D colors from top to bottom, with inscribed names such as The Fabulous 5, LEE, DOZE, DAZE, SHARP and DONDI." The tags represented individual artists or crews who would vie for visibility on the trains, sometimes painting entire cars.
The photographer captures an array of individuals, including performers, who make up the vivid tapestry of the metro system.
The photographer captures an array of individuals, including performers, who make up the vivid tapestry of the metro system. Credit: Jamel Shabazz
Shabazz is a constant, invisible presence in his photographs, as friends lean in close and grin for his lens, or he catches the eyes of passengers pressed close together through the window of a train car. He also had an eye for fashion and style, too, and people would often pose for him.
Photographing on the subway was "an ideal self-assignment," Shabazz said of why he began the body of work. Today, he added, "I still find joy in photographing complete strangers on the trains."
Photographing on the subway was "an ideal self-assignment," Shabazz said of why he began the body of work. Today, he added, "I still find joy in photographing complete strangers on the trains." Credit: Jamel Shabazz
The book was published in May, when -- for the first time in New York City's history -- the subway system stopped running 24 hours, 7 days a week due to the coronavirus pandemic. Prior to, ridership had already plummeted by 90 percent due to the city government's stay-at-home guidance. On June 8, the city began it's months-long plan to reopen, including attracting riders back to the train.
Shabazz said the city's transit system -- with its "live performances and personalities" is unlike any other he's visited for its ecosystem of individuality. New York's subway "offers a constant stream of creativity (in) one of the most vibrant and culturally diverse cities in the world."
"City Metro," published by Galerie Bene Taschen, is available now.