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Legendary street photographer Jamel Shabazz presented his latest photo book, City Metro, earlier this year. A project that is an extension of his 2018 same-titled exhibition at Galerie Bene Taschen in Cologne, Germany, where the book is also available for purchase

This series of photographs captures the life that is birthed from New York City’s transit system, a vital part to NYC’s residents. From the 1980s to the present day, Shabazz has photographed the people riding the subway, trains and buses, mainly focusing on Black individuals and the Black community. Aiming to preserve the beauty and integrity of people of all walks of life, the photo book shares the stories of these individuals as they travel through all five boroughs of the city.

Among the metal railings and graffitied walls, pictured are smiling faces, lovers kissing and friends laughing with one another. From Harlem to Queens, Shabazz photographs the authenticity presented by his subjects. A rose that grew from the concrete; each and every one of the subjects is just a flower blossoming in the harsh concrete of the city.

You first presented this project as an exhibition at Galerie Bene Taschen in Cologne in 2018 – we interviewed you about it back then. Fast forward to 2020 and you are launching the book form of City Metro. Take me through the process of putting together this photo book. 
The creation of the book was a joint collaboration between the curator of the exhibition, Bene Taschen, and myself. Bene is a true visionary who understands publishing very well. When the opportunity was presented to him to co-curate an exhibition at the Foto aan het Vrijthof in Maastricht, we discussed having a catalogue to accompany the show. I suggested a book that would feature images made on buses and trains here in New York City.
Once the idea was established, I generated a number of images that fit the theme, while Bene made a selection from my various books along with past shows we did at his gallery. Once the images were selected, we produced a final edit, then agreed that City Metro, would be an ideal title. The rest is history.
Why did you feel a book was the next appropriate step for this project?
Books serve as great keepsakes, and it is only befitting that a book or catalogue should accompany an exhibition.
A book compared to the exhibition; do these exist on two separate realms or is one just an extension of the other?
The book in part is an extension of the exhibition, even though the show itself is not based entirely on the images in the publication or the theme of the book. Nevertheless, they complement each other based on the time period that embodies the work that was created.

Speaking more personally about your specific project, was your intention for the photo book to construct an independent experience, one other than the exhibit?
Yes, the exhibition covers a larger body of my work, whereas the book is focused on a specific theme. Most of my past publications have shown a wide range of images, so when the idea came to produce a book, I thought it would be best to showcase a central subject matter that serves as its own narrative.
As a hip-hop head who feels more at home in cities and on subways covered in graffiti, a book such as yours is extremely impactful and meaningful. Images presented in this project bring someone like me so much joy and visual inspiration. I probably would have spent hours at the City Metro exhibition. Do you sense the impact you have created for your audience?
I am delighted in knowing that City Metro has brought you joy and visual inspiration. It truly warms my heart, and this feeling you describe is what I hope the viewer will experience in looking at my work in the show.
The Fly Girls, The Trio, Twin 1 and Twin 2; Three of my favorite photographs from this project. Photographs of New Yorkers have been a popular genre for people to capture but not quite in this manner. The active participation from the subject is, I think, less common. That’s why I believe the images from your book are unique in their nature. How has ‘social engagement’ been a key component for your images, and even more so now that your audience has a physical copy of the work?
Back when I first started making images, connecting with my subjects was a very essential aspect of my creative process. Whenever possible, I made it a point to have a conversation with those who I attempted to photograph, and that is probably the main reason why so many in my photographs look so relaxed and willing. It is my hope that it can serve as a guide to how I engaged strangers and made them comfortable in front of the camera.

The launch of your new book came several days before the killing of George Floyd. You are presenting a project to the public that documents and features the very subject that is Black Lives Matter, which is the lives of Black Americans. How did these sequences of events impact you? How did it impact the overall purpose of the book?
With all honesty, I bore witness to indiscriminate police incidents for over four decades. What made the killing of George Floyd different is the fact that it was recorded and the viewer is seeing this man not resisting, and pleading for his life as the officer shows absolutely no regard for him. There are no direct correlations between what happened to Floyd in my book, nor did his death inspire the production of the book as City Metro was actually published many months before the death of George Floyd.
From a previous interview with us, I gathered insight on the kind relationship you have with your subject. You expressed your “sense of duty” in what you are doing as a photographer by using your images to bring upon some form of awareness. With the current social and political climate, do you see your book as a resource for consciousness?
City Metro is nostalgic in nature. There are no politics openly reflected in it, with the exception of the photograph of three homeless men sleeping in an empty train car. However, the images that I regularly post on my social media feeds serve as talking points while offering a counter-narrative to many of the negative images that overwhelm us on a daily basis. It is important for me as a conscious artist to use my platform to inspire and provoke thought, which is the sense of duty I often speak about.
Do you think the book reflects the lives of today’s generation?
The book is a visual time machine into a period that no longer exists. Since the Covid-19 hit the shores of the United States, life as we once knew it is forever changed. We now live in an age where everyone for the most part must wear a mask in public, while social distancing. Regarding this new generation, they now have a glimpse into how life used to be for their parents and grandparents.
I think what is so great about transforming an exhibition into a book is that it gives the public an opportunity to have an everlasting visual experience with this project. Fans will be able to revisit their favorite images whenever they want. What is your opinion on that?
What you shared is true. What is equally important is for those who have seen the show, they can not only get a copy of the book but also see a much larger body of my work on spaces like Instagram, where one can see many more photographs and read the insightful comments that so many leave in response to the imagery.

Words
Nicole Otalvaro
Cover
All ears, NYC 1980. @Jamel-Shabazz. Courtesy Galerie Bene Taschen.

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