Steve Schapiro first fell in love with photography at the tender age of 9 at summer camp. As he continued, the native New Yorker drew inspiration from Henri Cartier-Bresson and took to the streets, training his eye to capture of the decisive moment. Schapiro’ first instructor, W. Eugene Smith, taught the young photographer more than just technique; Smith imparted the importance of having a world view and a personal outlook in his work.
Using photography as a tool of activism, Schapiro set forth to create some of the most significant photojournalist, portraiture, and documentary photography of our time. Working for publications including Life, Look, Time, Rolling Stone, and Vanity Fair, Schapiro created iconic photo essays on a vast array of subjects including the Civil Rights Movement, Robert F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign, migrant workers in Arkansas, hippies in Haight-Asbury, and Easter celebrations in Harlem.
Schapiro recognized the importance of intimacy in creating emotional connections with his subject in order to create a powerful photograph. “Forty percent of the work is taking care of the contact, and then the best thing to be is very casual and very quiet,” he told journalist Marcus Woeller. “The best opportunities arise when you stay on the sidelines at first and wait for an emotional situation. For a revealing moment that gives you a feeling about who this person is. And then it’s always good not to come off as bombastic and start talking right away. It’s not about you! Instead, it’s about the search for an iconic image that contains a great sense for the person and the situation.”
After the golden age of pictures magazines came to an end in the 1970s, Steve Schapiro began working with Hollywood film studios to create some of the most memorable promotional campaigns of the 1970s and ‘80s for blockbuster movies including The Godfather, Midnight Cowboy, Taxi Driver, The Way We Were, and Risky Business.
Schapiro also had a flourishing music photography career, shooting album covers in the 1960s for jazz icons Cannonball Adderley, Wes Montgomery, Bill Evans, and Charlie Byrd before going on to collaborate with pop stars like Barbra Streisand and David Bowie in the 1970s. Schapiro’s work became so ubiquitous it could be seen everywhere from Jane Fonda’s 1981 workout VHS tape to Dolly Parton’s greatest hits album. He photographed luminaries including Truman Capote, Andy Warhol, Muhammad Ali, Allen Ginsberg, and Mae West — all who revolutionized the political, artistic, and cultural spirit of the times.
“I’ve always been interested in politics and how the country was run. I also understood early that my views were in the minority,” Schapiro told Sixty Inches from Center. “You sense that there was a wide spectrum of opinion—which there always is—and the more you understand that people develop preconceptions at an early age, they tend to hold onto them throughout life, for the most part.”
With the understanding that “all art is a point of view,” Steve Schapiro realized that “the photographer has enormous powers” and put his to good use, working alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the height of the Civil Rights Movement. Between 1963 and 1968, Schapiro documented the people of the movement, both leaders and the people in support, who gave their lives to the cause. Schapiro joined historic marches, photographed Freedom Riders, and bore witness to bombed out remains of the 16th Street Baptist Church, which claimed the lives of four little girls in 1963.
Schapiro became deeply immersed in the Civil Rights Movement that year after reading James Baldwin’s seminal essays on race, “Down at the Cross – Letters from a Region of My Mind” and “My Dungeon Shook – Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of Emancipation” in The New Yorker. Inspired, Schapiro pitched a story to Life wherein he would travel alongside Baldwin from New York to Mississippi, documenting the movement.
Of Baldwin, Schapiro said, “Here was an intellectual, a brilliant man, and a Black leader who never seemed to forget the importance of relating to each other as human beings. He had a hunger for love and believed in its power.”
In 2017, Taschen paired Schapiro’s photographs with James Baldwin’s seminal work for a limited edition of The Fire Next Time, which included a new introduction by Civil Rights leader and U.S. Congressman John Lewis, who Schapiro met and photographed in the 1960s on the frontlines. Lewis drew parallels between then and now — further underscored by Schapiro’s ongoing commitment to the cause, photographing the Black Lives Matter movement in Chicago the same year the book was published.
Not content to rest on his past successes, Steve Schapiro continued to work into his 80s, telling Marcus Woeller, “Even though I feel that I’ve shot a lot of good pictures, I still haven’t stopped believing that I can always do something better.”
By Miss Rosen
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer focusing on art, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in books and magazines, including Time, Vogue, Aperture, and Vice, among others.
More information on Steve Schapiro on his website.