Jamel Shabazz takes street photographs. For the gallery owners, magazine editors and publishers whose belated attention brought Shabazz to international stardom in the early Aughts, his pictures were revelations: lively, expressive high points of late-20th-century portraiture. For a small contingent of in-the-know hip-hop scholars, they’re monuments to a very particular moment in African-American cultural history, when kids wore PUMA Clydes, teens drove dirt bikes, and the Five Percent Nation, an offshoot of the Nation of Islam, handed out newspapers in the streets. For Shabazz’s friends and contemporaries, they’re bittersweet reminders of an idealized past: a time still marked by the constant threat of gang violence, but one in which incarceration rates were lower, the streets were safer, and a small generation’s worth of murdered young men were still alive—“a time before crack,” to quote the title of one of Shabazz’s monographs. For Shabazz himself, they’re a compulsion, a vehicle for empathy, and an extension of daily life.

Jamel Shabazz

Photograph by Jamel Shabazz

And for Charlie Ahearn, director of the deceptively simple, sneakily heartbreaking new documentary Jamel Shabazz: Street Photographer? Presumably some combination of the above, but it’s never entirely clear: save for a couple of spontaneous off-camera laughs, Ahearn (of Wild Style fame) remains a mostly invisible presence. If that sounds like an aloof move in theory, it turns out to be liberating in practice. Jamel Shabazz is a relatively rare kind of contemporary documentary—one in which the on-screen action doesn’t seem as if it were taking place for the camera’s benefit. When Shabazz’s friends and colleagues give talking-head interviews, it feels as if they were chatting with a longtime acquaintance; when we see the photographer setting up shoots or catching up with friends, it’s as if everybody’s just hanging out between takes. (Watching Shabazz’s reunion with a long-imprisoned childhood friend, it’s hard to register the camera’s presence at all, though ours feels totally appropriate—a sign of Ahearn’s prodigious ability to make us feel at home.) The resulting film is low-key and, at least as far as its subject is concerned, decidedly uncritical.

That might be because it’s hard to find much in Shabazz to criticize. A former corrections officer who spent two decades working in high-security prisons with violent young men, and yet whose New York street portraits have the buoyancy, charm, and effortless goodwill of a child or a man who’s never known crime, Shabazz comes off as the real deal. In conversation, he’s at once reflective and transparent; at work, he’s both genuinely empathetic and savvy about how to get just the right shot (stroke the ego of the alpha male, he tells us in one monologue, and the rest will follow suit). His style is modest and unshowy; it’s not so much about proving the photographer’s skill as it is about coaxing out a certain aspect of the subject’s character: a glimmer in the eye, a suppressed smile, a way of standing—arms folded, elbows out, ready for anything. 

Helen Levitt Photo

Photograph by Helen Levitt

It’s the spontaneous, unforced quality of Shabazz’s pictures that gives them both their special sweetness and their poignancy. For many of Ahearn’s interview subjects—not least Shabazz himself—the photographs function like snapshots, bringing long-lost people and places to poised life. One friend treasures Shabazz’s portrait of him side-by-side with his father, taken shortly before the latter’s death. Many others point out healthy young men photographed as they were in the early days of hip-hop, bursting with attitude and self-conscious cool, and marvel that these kids, some soon to become victims of a surge in gang violence, could seem so full of life. Like his fellow New Yorker Helen Levitt, Shabazz captured moments of genuine happiness touched by undercurrents of the barely concealed threats in the surrounding society. For Shabazz, whose most famous photographs date from the early-to-mid-Eighties, the peril on the horizon was the spike in crack usage—and with it violent crime—that swept inner-city New York in the latter half of the decade. One of the most commendable things about Jamel Shabazz: Street Photographer is the way Ahearn finds in a shattered community the same joy and vigor that Shabazz found in that community’s pre-crime-wave golden age.

Of course, as much as Shabazz’s pictures are portraits of a community, they’re also portraits of a city: an old New York glimpsed prismatically by way of fashion trends and background details and half-obscured signs. So, in its own way, is Ahearn’s film: a record of a new New York waiting to be transformed, by the touch of a camera, into a kind of Eden.