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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 But a big part of these photographs remained unpublished.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.

AAJ: How important is Bowie to your career as a photographer? You have another book with various people's photographs taken, titled Then and Now and it has Bowie on the front cover.



SS: Then and Now has a few pictures of Bowie, but the book wasn't basically about Bowie. This one is really about him and it's not a rock and roll book. I feel in a lot of the pictures he sort of revealed himself to me. He wasn't giving me the image of Ziggy or someone else. He was giving me the image of real David Bowie. I was very impressed with it. I was impressed with the very last picture in the book which I first printed light and then when it came out in the book it was printed a little darker. It was a picture that really gave me an insight into David as a person. It was a spiritual picture as any of the others.

AAJ: I found some of these pictures to be both interesting and surprising. He looks so relaxed and amused.

SS: Well, he had a good time and we enjoyed ourselves. As I said in the introduction, when he found out that I had photographed Buster Keaton, who was one of his great heroes, we became very good friends. Basically, I work very quietly and we were really working with David's ideas. He seemed to be trying out new characters, new personas, new people to be, which he could use in his videos and music, in general. That's why he changed his costumes quite a bit because of that. It was a tryout session for him.

AAJ: Did he know that you also took photographs of Velvet Underground, a band which music he adored?

SS: Yeah, he knew that. Lou Reed, David Bowie and Iggy Pop were very close. All three of them.

AAJ: When you were researching through your archives for photographs were there any surprises to be found in the vaults?

SS: Most of the coverage with Bowie was in terms of real rock and roll performance where he was pretty much in character. Actually, a lot of these pictures were at Corbis, but there wasn't much interest in them at that time because I think everyone saw the rock and roll star more than a different side. I think, the most spiritual and personal side is reflected in the book and I don't think people were interested. Some of the pictures got used, for eg. the motorcycle picture which we shot at 4 am in the morning with the headlights of a car and the picture of him in front of a mirror which ended up being one of the three album covers for Nothing Has Changed. They have just released a 7 inch vinyl of "Golden Years." One of my pictures is on it. The pictures used were more album covers than the magazines, except for things like Low, which is widely shown.

AAJ: Can you talk about the photographs that adorn the front covers of Station to Station and Low?

SS: With Station to Station these pictures came out of working on The Man Who Fell to Earth. The Station to Station picture is really a picture I shot while they were staying out while they were rehearsing for a photograph for Station to Station. Low is from the same period. I took a lot of pictures and these happened to be ones which seem to work out the best. Basically, the record album company chose them. Eventually, the Low picture was movie poster for the Man Eho Fell to Earth before it became the Low cover.

AAJ: Was there any awareness at the time while you were working together that the images taken in 1975 will have such a significance 40 years later?

SS: No idea in the world. I worked a lot for Life magazine in the '60s and I did the Selma march and things like that, and I would do pictures. The film would go to the lab overnight and I would be onto something else. Basically, you never realize that these pictures will be of significance 40 or 50 years later. It did surprise me a lot. I was very lucky in photographing a lot of charismatic people and lot of people who were important in politics and entertainment, really in the whole social fabric of United States and the world. You thought of it in terms of what you were going to do the next week. Basically, you were excited if the pictures you took were used in Life magazine or another magazine the next week. So, everything was just in the present tense rather than in the past tense or in an archival or iconic sense.

AAJ: Since you have mentioned all those people both from the world of politics and entertainment. What is the common thread between artists and politicians, luminaries, protestors that you have taken photographs of?

SS: In a lot of them there is an inner sense of growth. If you take Bowie for example whereas The Rolling Stones and the Beatles have done fantastic music which has lit up the world, but basically in terms of their careers of those groups they didn't change much as things progressed. Mick Jagger is still doing pretty much what he did in the early years in performing the same way. The backgrounds might change, but basically, he stays the same whereas it seemed to me with David when he did something eventually he moved to something else. Either he got bored with it or he just had a sense of growth, and he continued this sense of growth through time in terms of inventing new characters, new persona, new music. That is true. If you have worked with someone who is particularly talented, most of the time or a lot of times it becomes a collaboration with the photographer. And you are both working for the same thing. It may be consciously or subconsciously, but you are both working in creating images that are good and hopefully are the right kind. Most of these people in the entertainment have a definite idea of their image or the images that were projecting at the time. The politicians, most of them have an attitude. All the world is filled with actors and they just happened to be in a lot of different fields. Politicians are actors as well as entertainers, in a way.
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