STEVE SCHAPIRO – Interview with the iconic photographer that captured history on the screens and streets

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Marlon Brando in ‘The Godfather’ photographed by Steve Schapiro.

1. The caliber and breadth of your work is a steadfast display that proves the far reaching powers of photography. What is it about capturing a moment in history; a soul, a feeling, an environment or even a glance, that is so poignant and exhilarating for you?

It is exciting to start off a day, entering into a new experience without knowing how it will evolve or end. There is always that challenge to find that ‘unique’ quality and spirit of an individual or event,  that makes a photograph special and perhaps even iconic.

2. What inspiration did you acquire from French photojournalist Henri Cartier Bresson when you first picked up a camera?

Henri Cartier Bresson had the ability to capture in a photograph a moment in time at its emotional height and with a strong sense of design. This is not an easy thing. As a young budding photographer I would walk through the New York City  streets and try to catch my ‘decisive moments’, but often I would come home and find my timing had been a bit off.  I would look at contact sheets of photos I had taken which made no sense at all. Fortunately all that has gotten much better for me.

3. What is it about the nature of politics that makes it such a viable subject for photography and its ability to tell a story through images?

The charisma of people we respect or hear a lot about increases our natural human instinct to want to find out who they really are behind the mask, and what they are truly about.
LIFE Magazine gained its initial reputation from covering not only politics, but wars and violent events where emotions flowed, and human emotion tends to creates strong visual images, which is the bloodline of photojournalism.

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Edie Sedgwick and Andy Warhol by Steve Schapiro.

4. How did you approach the process of photographing icons of cinema; from Dustin Hoffman in ‘Midnight Cowboy’, Al Pacino in ‘The Godfather’ Trilogy and Robert DeNiro in Taxi Driver, to Robert Redford, Marcello Mastroianni and Barabara Streisand. Is it more difficult, or easier, to shoot a film character, as opposed to a true persona?

There is not a great difference between photographing in the so-called ‘real world’ or on a movie set. As a photographer you are looking for the same qualities. You are looking for that special moment that will convey the ‘uniqueness’ of your subject or event, and you also want your photograph to have good  design. In short, you are hoping for that rare iconic image.
The basic difference between the two situations is that while documenting in the outside world, you can never be ‘positive’ as to what might  happen next. While on a film set, if you have already read the script, you have a pretty good idea of what to look for.

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Schapiro photographing Barbara Streisand.

5. How has technology impacted photojournalism in the 21st century, in comparison to the 60’s and 70’s?

When I worked for Life Magazine, most of what you did was in black and white. There had already been the great eight to ten page photo essays by W Eugene Smith on ‘A Spanish Village’ and ‘A Country Doctor’, as well as other long pieces by great photographers of the time. These stories had strong emotional flows to them.
In the mid 60’s television and television news came in and gained great popularity. The fifteen minutes of news at 6pm every night was soon to be supplanted by 24-hour news. Life and Look quickly lost advertisers and circulation.
It was no longer possible to do what had been done before. The essay I did traveling with James Baldwin across the South and in Harlem was carefully laid out for ten pages and eventually got squeezed down to five.
The flow and punch the initial layout had, never made it to the finished magazine. The week the story was to run, it opened on a right hand page and it was soon discovered that an ad for chocolate pudding was to be facing it. The story was quickly pulled and held for three weeks.
Today, magazines tend to run a single image to tell the whole story. Usually the photograph must be strong on ‘information’; emotion and design become secondary.
I remember that when I first started working with a 35mm Nikon rangefinder camera in the 60’s, there were still newspaper cameramen with 4×5 speed graphics and flash bulbs that had to be popped after every flash.
Well, the film camera has been supplanted by the digital camera. Most people now only think in color and do not even know how to work their digital camera in black and white, or even how they would do it after their memory cards are processed.
That whole genre which displayed human emotion so strongly is in danger of being lost forever. Color represents a totally different pallet of visualization.
Now, it would seem that even digital cameras are about to become obsolete – supplanted by the iPhone and other smart phones lighter and easier to handle and becoming more popular.

6. Do you believe photography can change the world, not just individual perspectives?

In certain instances photography has changed the world. Charles Moore’s photographs of the dogs attacking demonstrators in Birmingham, Alabama had a strong effect on the whole country’s attitude toward the non-violent civil rights movement.
Unfortunately, it is often the photos of tragedy that have the most emotional effect upon people.

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Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Marching for Voting Rights with John Lewis, Reverend Jesse Douglas, James Forman and Ralph Abernathy, Selma, 1965. Photography by Steve Schapiro.

7. Is NYC still as exciting a place to live as it was back in the 60’s and 70’s, or have politics, people and places changed significantly?

The 60’s in New York was an incredible place to be living in, especially for a photographer. In every field it seemed the sky was the limit. John F. Kennedy as President vitalized everything and it seemed that everyone, whatever their field, was inspired to try for excellence.
The Pop Art Movement was blossoming and politics was fun. For a photographer there were so many magazines, that if you had a good idea, you could find one that would hire you to do a story you cared about. In 1964, Esquire said that so much had already happened in these first four years of the 60’s that it was as if a whole decade has already gone by.
Today, it seems that everything has been overtaken by budgets and budget considerations. The mood is less optimistic and for young photographers not born in ‘the golden age of photojournalism’, it is much harder to find a way to get started.

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Muhammad Ali by Steve Schapiro.

 

QUICK RANDOM ONES

Favourite place to drink in Manhattan?

P.J. Clarke’s.

All time favourite film?

Being There with Peter Sellers.

If you could change one thing about the world, what would it be?

End hunger and poverty in what is a very unequal world.

Your most beloved place to hang out in New York?

Museum of Modern Art.

Favourite tune to work to?

Jefferson Airplane’s ‘Surrealistic Pillow’.

Who would you most like to photograph next?

The Buddha.

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David Bowie photographed by Steve Schapiro.
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Robert DeNiro in ‘Taxi Driver’ by Schapiro.
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Marcello Mastroianni in New York, 1962, by Schapiro.
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