Photojournalism Now: Friday Round Up – 19 March 2021

This week on Photojournalism Now: Friday Round Up – from the archives, an interview I did with American photographer Steve Schapiro a few years ago. I’m republishing some of my magazine stories, giving them a second life now that any copyright conflicts have passed!

Schapiro, who lives in Chicago, is one of the most genuine people I’ve met. When I was in Chicago in 2017 doing research for my PhD he invited me to his home where we drank tea and talked about the changing world of photojournalism while Lake Michigan glittered below. At the time Schapiro was 83 years old. The week before we had chatted in New York at the Lucie Awards about his latest book. Schapiro is mining his extensive archives, and also producing new work. In this interview we talk about a memorable photo shoot with David Bowie.

Before diving into the interview, there are a couple of interesting links to share. Reading the Pictures provides a comprehensive analysis of the “shifting visual narratives” of COVID-19 in 2020. Similarly, the Social Documentary Network also looks back at the first year of the pandemic. Given there was such a narrow view of the 1918-1919 pandemic it is quite fascinating to consider the breadth of imagery taken to convey the impact of coronavirus around the world.

From the archives:

Interview with Steve Schapiro

Steve Schapiro on the campaign trail with Robert Kennedy 1966

American photographer Steve Schapiro started his career at a time that is often referred to as the ‘Golden Age of Photojournalism,’ an era when pictorial magazines such as LIFE and LOOK were at the height of their popularity and using hundreds of pictures each week.

As a teenager Schapiro was fascinated with photography and in particular the magic of the darkroom, but it was Henri Cartier Bresson’s ‘The Decisive Moment’ that inspired him to take up photography as a career. “Cartier Bresson said there were three elements that made up a good photo; emotion, design and information,” he explains.

This philosophy had an enormous impact on the New York teenager and it has subsequently underpinned his life’s work. Later he went on to study with legendary photojournalist W. Eugene Smith to learn the technical aspects of photography and the art of storytelling. “In documentary, you are trying to record a moment. You are not just trying to get close enough to get a portrait, you are trying to get a sense of the time period and the place”.

He continues. “I had decided I wanted to become a journalistic photographer and the most you could aspire to at that point was to work for LIFE magazine, so I went out and did my own assignments. I did this story on migrant workers and it ran in a magazine called Jubilee, which would give you six to eight pages to really showcase your pictures.” The New York Times ran one of these photographs on the cover of the magazine and as they say, the rest is history.

Robert Kennedy 1966 (C) Steve Schapiro

Schapiro is renowned for documenting the major political events of the 1960’s including the civil rights movement and Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign. But his oeuvre is vast and he has photographed countless politicians and celebrities, his archive reading like an encyclopaedia of America’s rich and famous. He’s also carved a name for himself shooting film stills and his work on The Godfather series is legendary.

Martin Luther King Jr’s motel room on the day he was assassinated (C) Steve Schapiro

But one of his most memorable assignments was photographing David Bowie. In 1975 Schapiro conducted a marathon shoot with the artist that went on for more than 12 hours. During this time Bowie donned various outfits, created art by drawing on walls, floors and his clothing and connected with Schapiro in a way that is just not possible when you have a few fleeting moments to capture a portrait. This shoot is the focus of Schapiro’s book simply titled Bowie, which coincidentally came out around the same time as the musician’s death in 2016.

Schapiro says it was “amazing” to work with someone so creative and spontaneous. When he got the call from Bowie’s manager Michael Lippman asking if he’d do the shoot, “I said yes before Michael had finished the question,” he laughs.

“I really didn’t know what to expect in the sense that I was aware of Ziggy Stardust and all the flamboyant costumes David wore throughout his early career. David arrived and was extremely calm, and almost over intelligent, and very quiet in a way. It was a surprise. He immediately borrowed a shirt from one of my assistants and went into the dressing room. We didn’t know what he was going to come out with, what kind of costumes he would wear or what he would appear as.”

Bowie emerged from the dressing room in an outfit, which included the borrowed shirt. He had painted white stripes on the clothing and painted his toes white too. Schapiro tells that Bowie proceeded to make big circles on the background paper, a sketch that turned out to be the Kabala tree of life. “It was a very spiritual moment when he came out of the dressing room in this outfit and began to draw”.

Schapiro says shooting Bowie was similar to working with Buster Keaton, who Bowie named as one of his influences. “Often when I’m photographing actors as themselves, and not as a character, I have to give suggestions about what will work best for them as they become bewildered and don’t know what image to project. David had a very strong sense of what the shoot was about, and he wanted to experiment with who he could be next, what his persona would be. He reminded me of Buster Keaton in that respect and I always enjoyed working with Buster”.

(C) Steve Schapiro

“The way I saw David is that he would build a character and once he was satisfied he’d done what he wanted to with that character he’d move onto something else. He always seemed to me to have this sense of personal growth, which I very much respected. He never stood still and that’s part of his brilliance.”

Schapiro says as a photographer he is “anxious to keep the shoot going as long as we can because I want to get as many images as possible. That day we became immersed in what we were doing and never thought about the time. David would come out with a fantastic outfit and I’d pick up my camera to photograph it and he would say ‘oh wait a minute I just want to fix something’ and he’d come back 20 minutes later in something totally different!”

(C) Steve Schapiro

But it wasn’t all about characters and crazy outfits and Schapiro says the last two pictures in the book really give a sense of who Bowie was as a person, rather than an artist. “These pictures are important to me because he is giving himself to the camera, rather than just doing things to create pictures that are going to be in magazines. He was really showing himself, it seems to me, he was making a direct contact with the camera as David. To me these pictures are more David, than Bowie”.

Schapiro’s relationship with Bowie continued into the 1980s and a number of his pictures have appeared on Bowie albums. In 1987 Schapiro and his family were literally 15 minutes away from leaving the house for a holiday in Europe, when Schapiro got a call from Bowie asking him to come on tour. “I was honoured that he asked me, but I had to say no. We hadn’t had a vacation for a long time”.  

While Schapiro didn’t work with Bowie again, the artist continued to use his images and in 2015 Bowie chose Schapiro’s photographs for the cover of a box set. The outfit Bowie painted in Schapiro’s studio also featured in the last video the musician made just before his death. “The fact that in his final video Lazarus, Bowie came back to the outfit he had created in my studio, the outfit he’d painted and only worn on that day, was a strong emotional moment for me,” he says.

(C) Steve Schapiro
(C) Steve Schapiro

Today the octogenarian is still working and has embraced digital technology. “There are so many advantages with digital,” says Schapiro. “If I were shooting film I would have to stop every 35 frames and hope I didn’t miss anything while I was reloading the camera. Also to process the film would be too expensive. It occurs to me the biggest advantage of digital is looking in the back of the camera to check the pictures and thinking about how I can turn this into a better picture. I also think that cameras are becoming obsolete and that more and more people will be using Smartphones to do their pictures. I am sure that will become even more widespread as technology gets better and you can make bigger and bigger prints of better and better quality”.

While he acknowledges the functionality of digital, he believes the greatest issue facing photography today is the transient nature of images. “A few months ago I saw a picture of Obama and I thought wow that’s an amazing, fantastic picture and then it was gone. I probably will never see that picture again. Pictures that were taken of Bobby Kennedy’s campaign, by me and others, those pictures have stayed with us because they’ve been reproduced and people get time to look at them over period of time… But everything always changes. I remember photographing Jackie Kennedy in 1963 and all the photographers were using one-shot flash bulbs! The change in technology has been enormous and it will continue. Technology changes constantly and grows in absurd leaps and bounds”. And as he’s done all his life, Schapiro will continue to go with the flow.

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