This article was originally published in the July 2017 Trenton Downtowner.
‘I believe there is beauty in everything — from watching the sunset on the Trenton Makes bridge to the rainy days in Wilbur Section. As a photographer, I attempt to catch the essence of that beauty in my photos,” says the self-described street photographer and Trenton native Habiyb Shu’Aib.
Shu’Aib is having a solo show in the gallery in the recently dedicated Trenton Hall Annex at 137 North Broad Street, at Mercer County Community College’s James Kerney Campus (JKC) in downtown Trenton.
The exhibit, running through Monday, July 17, is titled “Beloved Trenton” and features Shu’Aib’s affectionate but honest portraits of the city. It was curated by JKC gallery director and MCCC professor Michael Chovan-Dalton, who is also the coordinator of MCCC’s Photography and Digital Imaging Program.
In the exhibit notes for “Beloved Trenton,” Chovan-Dalton writes: “Trenton can be a complicated place to describe because it is a city that struggles with its identity and is perceived differently by those who only know it through the media, by those who work here but live elsewhere, by those who left here, by those who moved here, and by those who never left.”
“Habiyb was recommended to me through Artworks, through Addison Vincent (exhibits coordinator at Artworks),” Chovan-Dalton says. “Habiyb had shown in group shows, but I thought this would be a great time for a solo show, to show his work and his idea of what Trenton is. It’s like a visual journal.”
Born and raised in Trenton, Shu’Aib (also known as “Beloved1” on Instagram) began photographing the city around age 9, after his parents bought him a disposable camera. His images reflect an individual who loves seeing, and they show the spirit of an artist who takes the viewer to places that seem ordinary but which he has transformed into the unexpected.
Shu’Aib grew up in the Wilbur Section of Trenton and connects his interest in art with his family. “My father was a trumpet player and also a construction worker,” he says. “My mother was big into music also on a fan level growing up she was an dental assistant then later worked for the state, but she always appreciated art. Growing up there was always music playing in my house from The Parliament of Funk, The Police, David Bowie, Public Enemy, Rakim, Madonna, and everything else. My parents were interested in art as long as I could remember. A lot of their friends were painters and musicians.
“My dad sometimes would drag me out from the house and away from my Nintendo and take me to New York. We would either go to different museums or art exhibits, or sometimes just walk around and spend time in Soho and the Village. I never understood then why he was doing what he did. I was just happy to be spending time with him. Now I look back at it and appreciate every second of it. My parents have always been very supportive of my ideas, and imagination.”
Shu’Aib is someone who is familiar with Trenton, but still curious, still seeing and capturing pictures of the city the way a traveler might.
The photographer seems to especially enjoy the juxtaposition between nature and urban locations. His works explore how closely the natural world bumps up against the city, and how quickly wildlife can take over.
He has observed and photographed railroad tracks and abandoned spaces encroached by towering grass and wildflowers, hearty little weeds poking up through cracked sidewalks, and leafy limbs of trees asserting themselves through the broken panes of glass in an abandoned building.
“I loved the whole process of getting my pictures developed, hearing my father’s perspective and my mother’s praise of my photos,” Shu’Aib writes on his website, bloved1.com. “I’ve been in love ever since.”
In planning the exhibitions at the JKC Gallery, Chovan-Dalton was looking for a diversity of ideas and hopes to show more works by regional photographers while also showing nationally and internationally known artists. “Some of the people I’m bringing in are really well known,” he says.
Chovan-Dalton, who is just on the verge of 50, grew up mostly on Long Island, with a brief family foray to Florida. He says that his parents died when he was quite young, and he and his sisters then lived with his uncle and aunt.
“My uncle was an avid photographer when we traveled and at our family events, but his profession was a homicide detective in Manhattan, and then a Medicaid fraud detective on Long Island,” he says. “My aunt was a secretary at Stony Brook University.”
Chovan-Dalton says he was not interested in photography until his junior year in high school. “My cousin recommended I take a photography class, and I fell in love with it,” he says. “I signed up for the yearbook staff, which also gave me a way to talk to girls.”
Chovan-Dalton headed to Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and had plans to major in engineering, “because it seemed safe,” he says. “My calculus professor told me, ‘You’re crazy, you should stay with photography — engineers are boring.’”
“So I spent a year at Lehigh, and I loved it there, but I found myself photographing all the time,” Chovan-Dalton says. “I used the campus police darkroom to work on my photos because Lehigh didn’t have one. If they’d had a visual arts program, I would have stayed. That’s when I applied to the School of Visual Arts (SVA) in New York.”
After earning his BFA from the School of Visual Arts, Chovan-Dalton worked at Fundamental Photographs in New York, a specialized photo studio and science stock photo library.
“I was managing the office but also shooting for them, which combined my love of science and photography,” Chovan-Dalton says. “It’s the kind of agency that supplies the photos for science textbooks.”
“There’s a long history of photography as an art/science, using photography to make science more beautiful and artistic,” he continues. “It actually became a ‘thing,’ through such people as Berenice Abbott, Eadweard Muybridge, and Harold Edgerton — known for his ‘bullet through the apple.’ I worked there for a long time, but it was a small agency and there was not a whole lot of room for growth.”
About 10 years after his undergraduate studies Chovan-Dalton decided to pursue teaching and chose Columbia University, where he received his MFA in 2001.
In the last couple of years Chovan-Dalton has also been energized by thePhotoShow, a podcast he created and now co-hosts with Kia McBride, a photography professor and manager of photo facilities at the School of Arts at Columbia University.
The podcast features conversations with photographers discussing their influences, teaching, exhibiting, books, tools, and technology — anything that might come up in a conversation related to photography.
Chovan-Dalton reflects that the MCCC gallery at the West Windsor campus has been around for many years, but the new downtown gallery confirms the school’s commitment to supporting the arts community in Trenton.
“Trenton Hall was built about five years ago, and the fashion program was started there,” Chovan-Dalton says. “They then purchased the building where the gallery is, and asked the arts faculty for ideas about running it.”
Happily for Chovan-Dalton, his idea of showcasing photography was most warmly received.
“It’s not a big space, so photography is something that’s easier to manage in terms of size,” he says. “It’s a perfect little gallery for photography. I’m excited to be running the gallery and especially excited about the shows coming up.”
“Beloved Trenton” will be followed in September by “It’s Not About the Game,” Trenton-area photographer Aubrey J. Kauffman’s series examining the design and architecture of urban athletic fields and courts.
The schedule continues in October with a show curated by Efreh Zelony-Mindell, a New York-based painter, curator, and writer who “selects work that pulls apart obvious, or expected assumptions of gender in an attempt to better understand, redefine, and ultimately reclaim what ‘queer’ is.”
A November exhibition titled “Shot” features work by New York photographer Kathy Shorr from her book “Shot: 101 Survivors of Gun Violence in America” (powerHouse Books, April 2017). Shorr’s work has been seen in numerous publications including the Village Voice, Photo Review, and Newsweek. During the exhibit there will be a panel discussion on gun violence that will include survivors who are included in the book project.
For spring, 2018, Chovan-Dalton has planned “America in a Trance,” an exhibit by Greek-born Niko J. Kallianiotis, who now lives and photographs in cities and small towns across Pennsylvania. Later in 2018 the gallery will host Tony Chirinos’ “Fighting Cocks,” a visual exploration/investigation of the cockfighting culture in his native Cuba.
Beloved Trenton, JKC Gallery, James Kerney Campus, Mercer County Community College, Trenton Hall Annex, 137 North Broad Street. Through Monday, July 17. Regular summer gallery hours are Tuesdays, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Wednesdays, noon to 6 p.m.; and Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. 609-586-4800.
Habiyb Shu’Aib online: bloved1.com.
Chovan-Dalton online: chovandalton.com.