Crack made its first appearance in Miami around 1981 and over the ensuing 10-15 years spread to Los Angeles, New York and countless other US cities. Smoking rocks led to the rise of the terrifying violent drug gangs, crack whore mythology, “crack babies” and desperately fractured communities. Jamel Shabazz knew New York before this happened and captured the scene with a joyful frankness that is rarely seen today.

Shabazz has something of a cult status among the photographic community of New York. A man who’d served in the military and later worked in a correctional institute, he was the only man to work so hard yet with such apparent ease to photograph New York’s boroughs through the eyes of a participant. This book, while ostensibly a document relating to New York black culture, actually has a huge amount to say to all city communities. All the images are taken between 1980 and 1985, a time that for Shabazz that was the end of era.

Shabbaz walked his haunts of Brooklyn, Harlem, Flatbush and other traditionally black and Hispanic neighbourhoods taking portraits of the people and anything that fell into the trap of his curiosity. Group shots, single portraits, families, gang leaders with their posses … all were seen through his open and democratic lens. Technically the photographs are straightforward, his style unaffected by a desire to make a statement about himself and his craft. In fact, as the accompanying essay by Charlie Ahearn suggests, Shabazz positioned his work more with the Polaroid portraitists of Times Square than with the work of Leonard Freed, which he admired.

The reason his work has resonance is in part because of the reaction of the subjects to Shabazz, who manages to photograph them as they would wish to be seen. This method may have been for his own safety – photographing gangs and their generals could be pretty hairy and no doubt they expected to be shot looking “fly”. But the openness, happiness and lack of suspicion that comes from people who are being photographed by a friend, by one of their own, is what makes this book out stand out. No value judgments are placed on them. His subjects are the Puma and Shelltop-wearing hiphoppers, double-dutching girls, shopkeepers, hairdressers, restaurant owners, school kids – the individuals who together make a community.

Shabazz identifies with the sense of being lost in your own life as he witnessed the catastrophic rise of crack in New York decimated the city. The empty eyes of the crack addict decaying in a den are not featured in this book – but as we look at these often joyous images, we wonder which of these people ended up there. A Time Before Crack documents Shabazz’s memories of the people he’s lost to a hopeless addiction, his community, his friends, his children … it’s a New York that Shabazz loved that no longer exists.        

Mike Trow