Photographer and Trenton native Habiyb Shu’Aib seems to often point his lens upward, and he must take his camera out at the magic hours of dawn and dusk, producing images with richly hued skies streaked with surrealistic clouds, with bridges and other Trenton landmarks in the foreground.
Other photos find Shu’Aib exploring color, even among the most humdrum situations in the city: for example his image of a lonely street with a mostly red fire hydrant as the focal point, an abandoned blue couch behind it.
Describing himself simply as “a street photographer from New Jersey,” he writes, “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.”
Shu’Aib will have a solo show at 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, which runs from Monday, June 19, through Monday, July 17, is titled “Beloved Trenton” and features Shu’Aib’s affectionate but honest portraits of the city. There will be a reception and artist’s talk on Friday, June 23, from 5 to 8 p.m.
The show 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.
The space in Trenton Hall has already hosted several exhibits, including Trenton resident C.J. Harker’s “Trenton Blacksmiths” in February and early March, which focused on the historic Trenton Blacksmith Shop. April and early May featured “Schools for the Colored” by Wendel White, depicting the buildings and landscapes that were associated with the system of racially segregated schools.
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 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.”
“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.
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, such as Harker, White, and Shu’Aib — but also 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.
Soon after graduate school he married Cynthia Chovan, who is the development director at De La Salle Academy in New York City. The couple lives in Rutherford with their two children, Matteo, 9, and Veronica, 5.
Before Chovan-Dalton came to MCCC in 2005, he taught at Columbia, as well as LaGuardia Community College, Rockland Community College, and Ramapo State, now Ramapo College of New Jersey.
Chovan-Dalton names such “classic” influences as Garry Winogrand, Walker Evans, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Helen Levitt, and adds that his own color work is also influenced by contemporary photographers like Martin Parr and William Eggleston.
“Then there are also the people I have met who have been influences,” Chovan-Dalton says. “I would say that Thomas Roma is the most influential person to me, my mentor in fact.”
Roma, a Brooklyn-born street photographer and camera innovator, is a professor at Columbia University’s School for the Arts, and founder and director of its photography department.
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 (www.thephotoshow.org) features conversations with photographers discussing their influences, teaching, exhibiting, books, tools, and technology — anything that might come up in a conversation related to photography.
Debuting in July, 2015, thePhotoShow has had considerable support from Chovan-Dalton’s alma mater, SVA, as well as Charles Traub, who heads SVA’s photo and video graduate program; in fact, the podcast is recorded at SVA.
“(Traub) was on the podcast, and he suggested that we work together,” he adds. “He sponsored me with the space, and now we record most of our episodes there in what’s called ‘The Big Room,’ their theater in the photography building.”
Chovan-Dalton says that the public is invited to attend the sessions. “The recordings are open to audiences, and we record via radio style — the microphones are not meant to pick up audience and other noises.”
Although he seems to have a natural ability in interviewing guests and hosting thePhotoShow, he never studied electronic communications such as radio and television. Chovan-Dalton says he picked up his skills from listening to podcasts during his lengthy commute from Rutherford to the Trenton area.
“I was thinking about doing a podcast in December of 2014 and began putting it together, researching hosting sites, equipment, etc.,” he says. “Then I started doing the interviews in January of 2015, so by July I had enough episodes to keep releasing it weekly, but I had to move to bi-weekly releases because of my teaching schedule.”
Trenton Hall at the James Kerney Campus officially opened on April 12 of this year. Part of the celebratory ceremonies included the dedication of the gift painting “Fashion Design, MCCC, Trenton Campus,” by longtime MCCC art instructor Mel Leipzig, who retired in 2013. In the painting, Leipzig captured one of the first fashion classes held in the then-unfinished building, which was designed by Trenton architects Clarke Caton Hintz.
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, JKC Gallery, James Kerney Campus, Mercer County Community College, Trenton Hall Annex, 137 North Broad Street, Trenton. Monday, June 19, through Monday July 17. Reception and artist’s talk, Friday, June 23, 5 to 8 p.m. 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 or www.mccc.edu/community_gallery_jkc.shtml
Habiyb Shu’Aib online: https://bloved1.com; www.instagram.com/beloved1; www.facebook.com/habiyb.shuaib
thePhotoShow is Michael Chovan-Dalton’s podcast about photographers and photography: www.thephotoshow.org; Chovan-Dalton online: www.chovandalton.com.