“My favorite picture in 1965 is this middle-aged Black woman with this sign ‘Stop Police Killings.’ And it’s so relevant today.” -Steve Schapiro
Steve Schapiro was born and raised in New York. Away at summer camp when he was 9 years old he discovered photography. He took to the New York streets to be like his idol, Henri Cartier-Bresson.
He studied with W. Eugene Smith in his loft where he learned how to print to bring out deep blacks and strong, clean whites. to become a photojournalist. Smith was very interested in using the power of documentary photography to make social changes and his beliefs had a great influence on the young Schapiro.
Career launched with self assignment
Steve Schapiro’s career began in Arkansas with a project he gave himself to photograph migrant farmworkers. He spent four weeks photographing in a laborers’ camp there. Jubilee, a small Catholic magazine, ran the story giving it eight pages. The New York Times Magazine used one of the photos for a cover. He was on his way professionally.
Schapiro was shooting for Life magazine in 1962 when he read an essay by James Baldwin in The New Yorker. That article inspired him to pitch a story to Life that would have him traveling from Harlem to North Carolina, Mississippi and New Orleans covering Baldwin’s speaking tour.
This became his introduction to the Civil Rights Movement and to Martin Luther King Jr. One of his most powerful photographs is of Baldwin posing in front of an ice cream parlor displaying a sign on its window stating “Colored Entrance Only” (opening photo, top row, second image from the right).
Civil Rights Movement
Photographing Baldwin on his speaking tour through the South opened Schapiro’s eyes and camera to the gathering storm to grant voting and other rights to African Americans.
In an interview with Scott Indrisek, Steve Schapiro said, “I saw a world which I had not really known about that well, since I was always a New Yorker. That got me involved and interested in the Civil Rights movement, and I started getting assignments from Life and other magazines to follow what was happening. That culminated in the Selma march — and the killing of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.”
Schapiro continues talking about King saying, “When I looked at my contact sheets after, I noticed that Dr. King seemed to look into the crowd with a sense of foreboding,” he says. “He was getting death threats, and I think [he felt] that something might happen at any time.”
Schapiro photographed King’s hotel room hours after he was killed. Eerily, the TV screen has a newscast about the assassination (opening photo, bottom row, first image.)
When the picture magazines — Life, Look and others — folded, a void for photo stories was created. Schapiro turned to Hollywood for survival. He photographed movie sets for The Godfather, Taxi Driver, Rambo, Midnight Cowboy and others.
He also worked with musicians including David Bowie and Barbra Streisand creating album covers and promotional content. The opening photo’s bottom row shows, clockwise from the far right, Robert De Niro in Taxi, Barbra Streisand, David Bowie, Marlon Brando in The Godfather.
Steve Schapiro’s photographs have been featured in exhibitions since 1969, where the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Harlem on My Mind” showcased several of his works. Since then, his photographs have been shown worldwide in museums and galleries.
Recently, The High Museum of Art’s “Road to Freedom” showcased many of his civil rights and Martin Luther King Jr. photos on its tour of the United States. He has had shows in Los Angeles, Sante Fe, London, Berlin, Paris, Amsterdam and Berlin.
Monographs of his photographs are in “American Edge” (2000), “Schapiro’s Heroes” (2007), “The Godfather Family Album: Photographs by Steve Schapiro” (2008), “Taxi Driver” (2010), “Then And Now” (2012), “Bliss” (2015), “BOWIE” (2016), “Mercicordia” (2016) and “The Fire Next Time,” with James Baldwin’s text (2017).
“People look at photographs and think of them as truth,” Schapiro observes. “But really what determines the truth of a photograph is the moment when the photographer presses the shutter button. He can make you look happy or sad in the final image that others will see. We all have internal opinions and prejudices but I think you should try to stay as objective as you possibly can.”
Words to live by
Schapiro was asked what mistakes young photographers would want to avoid. He said simply “Mistakes are good for you. You learn from them.”
Watch him describe his civil rights photography in this short 5-minute video from Fahey/Klein Gallery in Los Angeles.
Read more stories about inspirational photographers in On Photography.