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Steve Schapiro: Photographs That Can Energize People and Music

Nenad Georgievski By

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A long time photographer for Life magazine, Steve Schapiro is one of the most esteemed photographers of our time. For over five decades he has taken photographs of well-known politicians, activists and celebrities. These photographs are not only chronicles of people and the times, but cultural milestones as well. He has taken photographs of rev. Martin Luther King and the march in Selma, Senator Robert Kennedy's presidential campaign, the film sets of movies such as Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather or Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver. Over the years his photographs were collected in various books who portray people in their prime.

His recent book collects his photographs of the late David Bowie which were made 40 years ago. It was in 1974 when he first worked with Bowie in L.A. for a private photo session and during that time he took pictures of the late artist that best portray the period during his stay in LA before moving to Berlin. It was a transitional period for Bowie that saw him moving well past characters such as Ziggy Stardust and Halloween Jack and before the appearance of the Thin White Duke. Some of the photographs have adorned the covers of various magazines, most notably The Rolling Stone magazine, while others have appeared as press photographs. But a big part of these photographs remained unpublished. Schapiro is the author of the photographs made for the covers of the iconic Station to Station and Low albums.

These photographs show how his style evolved at the time as it always had as part of his quest to explore places he had never been to before. Other photographs show him as he faces the strange as he is wearing a suit with white stripes and draws Cabalistic images. Just before he died, in the video of Lazarus he is wearing the same suit and these photographs make a full circle. The best photographs here don't look staged at all, but even those that do are evocative and affective.

Schapiro's classic images are an indelible part of music history and provide an insight into some of the most unforgettable moments that have defined popular music.

All About Jazz: How did this book about Bowie originate?

Steve Schapiro: Bowie's manager in 1975 (Michael Lippman) asked me if I would like to do a shoot with David Bowie and off course I answered immediately yes. So, it came from his manager and then we set out in the studio in Los Angeles and I came earlier in the morning with my crew and we set out lights and background paper. David came at 4 o'clock and the session lasted for I guess, 12 hours. It finished at 4 am in the morning. That was my first session with David Bowie. He came and he borrowed a costume from one f my assistants and went into the dressing room. He came back 20 minutes later and he had painted the white stripes on his shirt and pants, and even his toes. He started to draw images on the wall and then he drew an image from the Qabalah -The Tree of Life on the background paper. That was the first thing he did and what was startling was that the same outfit he wore to the "Lazarus" video just before he died and to me it was very emotional because both of these were very spiritual moments for David. When we first arrived we didn't know what to expect. We didn't know if we were going to get Ziggy Stardust or some person in flamboyant costumes, but basically he came in very quiet, calm and over intelligent. We immediately spoke about what we were doing. He had a definite idea about what he wanted to do that day. He was easy to work with and it was a collaborative experience. I just brought his ideas to the light of the day. That was the start of it.

AAJ: Two years ago you had a successful exhibition in Chicago named "Warhol, Reed and Bowie." To what extent did the success of the exhibition contribute to the idea of publishing this book?

SS: I guess basically, the reaction to the pictures was very strong at the gallery. We had put the pictures up and in terms of the Bowie pictures, they all look good, but it seemed to me we needed one more really, really good picture. And I went back to my transparencies from 1975`and I found a transparency that I never printed before, had never looked at carefully, so it was totally new. I really, really liked it and we first printed it as 30x40 inch print which we put out on the wall in the midst of the Bowie pictures in the show and the day before the show I decided it wasn't big enough. It was 8 o'clock at night when I called my printer who happened to be still here. He was just leaving. We asked him if he could make a print overnight, 40x50 inch print, which he did, and I called a framer. We were able to put this print which we have decided upon the day before into the show in a much larger size. Everyone reacted more to this photograph than to anything else in the show. It was a pretty good show. I've been thinking of doing a Bowie book in October (2015). We really started putting it together and David thought it was a good project. Then we put it off a little bit. We were gonna come out in April 2016, in the original project. We decided to put it off until the fall. And suddenly David died and suddenly the Qabalah became important because of the fact that he wore the same outfit which you see is on the cover of the book. He wore that for me in 1975 and it changed the whole look of the book. It also changed how we wanted to do the book. His death was such a shock for everybody. It changed everything. The book came out about a week ago and immediately it was sold out. It's already going to a second printing.

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