Steve Schapiro: The Power in Truth

Words: Mark Edward Harris

The year 1961 marked the beginning of Schapiro’s career as a freelance photographer at a time when social issues and politics were front and center in American culture. His photo essays on subjects ranging from Harlem to Haight-Ashbury illustrated the pages of such top-tier publications as LIFE, Rolling Stone, Time and Newsweek throughout the turbulent decade.

In the 1970s, as picture magazines succumbed to television, Schapiro shifted focus to the movie industry, producing advertising and publicity stills for films including The Godfather, The Way We Were, Taxi Driver, Midnight Cowboy, Chinatown, Rambo, Risky Business and many others. He also collaborated on record cover projects for musical megastars like Barbra Streisand and David Bowie.

Many of Schapiro’s greatest hits are included in his books: American Edge (2000), Schapiro’s Heroes (2007), The Godfather Family Album (2008), Taxi Driver (2010), Then and Now (2012), Bliss (2015), Bowie (2016), Misericordia (2016), Ali (Powerhouse) 2017 and the book closest to his photographic raison d’etre: The Fire Next Time (Taschen) 2017, with James Baldwin’s text and Schapiro’s civil rights photos from 1963 to 1968.

Schapiro’s efforts have not gone unnoticed by the photographic community. The Chicago-based lensman was awarded the 2017 Lucie Award for Outstanding Achievement in Photojournalism.

How did you begin covering the Civil Rights Movement in America?
Through James Baldwin. He did an essay in The New Yorker in late 1962 which became the basis for his book The Fire Next Time, which came out the next year. I was beginning to freelance for LIFE and asked them if I could do a photo essay on Baldwin. They agreed. He agreed. I spent a month with him traveling from Harlem to North Carolina to Mississippi to New Orleans. It was an eye-opener. Then I kept getting more assignments from LIFE about civil rights and spent a lot of time in the South.

Did you find yourself in dangerous situations with segregation and integration being such divisive subjects at the time?
Only in one instance. I was at the training session for the Summer of ’64, which was a movement to go into Mississippi and try to convince African-Americans to vote, which was a difficult situation. Even if they had a college education they would find some clause in the application which they couldn’t answer. It was a catch-22. Also, most African-Americans trying to register were in danger of losing their jobs or having a cross burnt in front of their house or having bullets fired into their house. In the middle of this I was working with a stringer from Ole Miss, and we heard that a church had been bombed near Philadelphia, Mississippi. As we were driving there we heard that three civil rights workers were missing in the town. When we got there I saw this big, burly sheriff and I started taking pictures of him. He was at a distance from me. He came over, took the camera out of my hands, opened the back and took the film out, threw the roll on the ground and gave me my camera back. I didn’t know how lucky I was at the time. He was Sheriff [Lawrence] Rainey, one of the ringleaders in the killing of the three civil rights workers.

You could have ended up in a swamp.
Very easily. I did photograph the car that was pulled out of the swamp that was driven by the civil rights activists.

How did you go about documenting such a vast subject such as the Civil Rights Movement?
You take it day by day. There was something happening somewhere, or at least hopefully there was, and you would photograph that. You’re never quite sure what you have on the rolls of film. The images that you think are fantastic or even iconic turn out to be nothing, and then there are others that surprise you and turn out to be very good. I didn’t have time to change lenses and I had to do color and black and white and needed wide-angle shots and telephoto shots, so consequently I used to carry a lot of 35mm cameras with different lenses—up to five—two color, two black and white and a 180mm on a body that I could switch onto one of the others. Tri-X was the normal film for black and white and either Kodachrome or Ektachrome 64 for color. At that time my go-to lens was probably my 35mm; I use my 28mm a lot more now. I also used the 105mm, which has always been a very good portrait lens.

Did you have a chance to get to know Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.?
Only through public events. I didn’t know him privately. But when I started to put The Fire Next Time together I went through my contact sheets and found that I had many more pictures of him than I anticipated. I own all my negatives. I was never a staffer for LIFE magazine, I was always a freelancer. Taschen released a version of the new book with a choice of one of three silver-gelatin prints, each in an edition of 50. One is Martin Luther King, one is the American flag and the third is of Baldwin in front of “God is Love.”

The book shows how you covered both sides of the story, including George Wallace at the University of Alabama.
I had my own personal feelings about George Wallace, but I’m just photographing an event the best I can in terms of what was happening in front of my eyes. But everyone has a point of view. Basically a photographer presses a button, but they decide how you see that person in front of your lens. There’s the famous story about Eisenstaedt photographing Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels in 1933. Goebbels was sitting stiffly in a chair with a very demonic look in a dark suit with an aide hovering over him. It’s a very disturbing photo. But 15 minutes later Eisenstaedt photographed him smiling. These went to Henry Luce, who was the editor of TIME magazine, and it was his choice which image to show to millions of people to decide how they felt about how the Nazi movement was developing. So there is no truth in photography. It’s really a point of view of the photographer and the editor.

The picture I like most in the new book, the most relevant photo to the present day, I did in Selma in 1965. It’s relevant to Ferguson. It’s happening 50 years later. One of the signs reads, “Stop Police Killings.” I like the attitude of all the people in the picture.

Do you see overall progress from that era?
You had a situation at that time where the troopers, the police and the sheriffs were trying to prevent the Black [Power] movement from succeeding. It was just a general viewpoint. It’s less of a problem than in 1965, but it’s still not gone.

Were you taking sides with a camera?
I was just photographing what was there. I photographed the segregationists in St. Augustine, including one of the top segregationists who was rumored to be one of the bombers of an African-American church in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963.

It would be interesting to photograph some of these people now and see if their attitudes have changed.
A lot of them have. I went back for the 30th anniversary of the Summer of ’64 in Mississippi, and one of them was a guy named Larry Rubin. He had been a big organizer in a small town, and we went and met the guy who used to be the sheriff, who became the owner of a general store there. He had pictures taken in the early 1960s and before then, and they were looking at the pictures together. They weren’t going to hold hands, but they could talk with each other in an easy way. It’s a time that’s gone by to some extent, at least in that particular town.

When you began covering film sets, how were you able to infuse your movie stills with the same gritty vibe as your documentary work?
There’s really no difference in terms of doing a documentary situation or a film situation. You’re looking either for the spirit of the person you’re photographing or the spirit of the event. The only difference is that in a documentary situation you can’t be positive about what’s going to happen in the next five minutes, but in a film situation, if you’ve read the script, you have an idea of what’s happening next.

What were some of the highlights of working on movies such as Taxi Driver and The Godfather?
The Godfather was very much a family oriented film in the sense that everyone had their families there and the moment the director called “Cut!” the actors would go back into their normal personalities and kid around. There was a lot of mooning on the set and a lot of practical jokes, as opposed to Taxi Driver, where Bobby De Niro developed the character both internally and externally, and he really held to that even when the camera stopped. He stayed very much in character. I worked “specials” on all the films; I was never a unit photographer. I just came in for the important moments for advertising and publicity usage.

Shooting on a movie set is a bit of a dance for still photographers. How do you go about getting what you want and what the studio needs without getting in the way?
The still photographer is always on the bottom rung of the totem pole. Basically, you’re doing nothing that is helping production—you can only be in the way or make noise or get in someone’s eyeline. It’s only after the film is made that you become extremely important in terms of marketing and publicity. I shot with a blimp a lot of the time while the cameras were rolling, especially if it was a very quiet scene.

So for instance your famous shot of Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight in Midnight Cowboy was not a separate setup for stills?
That was shot during the filming. Actors don’t like to do things afterwards. They feel like they’ve already done it. You have to be very friendly with the Assistant Director so that he will ask them to do it again if you need it, but basically the more you can get during the filming or rehearsal the better off you are. You’re going to get a better sense of emotion.

You’ve worked on a high percentage of what became classics. How would you get called in to work on these films?
Working for LIFE and other major magazines definitely helped. With regard to The Godfather, everyone was interested in Brando. I went to LIFE and got the magazine to guarantee a cover before the film started, which they rarely did. I went to Paramount, and they were anxious for me to do it. I did about 12 weeks on The Godfather. Brando was extremely easy to work with and very relaxed. He loved kids. Francis [Ford Coppola] had to fight to get him in the film. The studio did not want him. Every actor wanted to play the role. Danny Thomas wanted to be the godfather. Frank Sinatra wanted to be the godfather. Brando was 47 years old when they made the film. The studio didn’t want anyone who was going to cause any trouble, and Brando had a reputation of sometimes being difficult. The studio really thought of The Godfather as being a quickie, a shoot-’em-up B movie.

_How did the idea of Brando using cotton in his mouth come about
Francis went to his house one day and Brando put in the cotton. It was his idea.*

Tell us about your studio sessions with high-powered celebrities such as Barbara Streisand.
Actually, Bob Willoughby was supposed to do Funny Girl, and he had a falling out with Ray Stark and I got called in. I did some pictures of her on background paper in a ballet sort of outfit, but a lot of it is just the movie lighting. I really like working as a fly on the wall. I’m very quiet on a set. I did quite a number of album covers for her like Lazy Afternoon and Streisand Superman, and those were all lit with strobes.

What are you working on these days?
For years people looked at me as a movie photographer, and I’m trying to get away from that label because it’s not who I am. That was an interim period of time, but my real interest is in civil rights and other aspects of humanity. I did a book on the change in the hippie movement from being a very heavy drug culture to one that’s much more into meditation and organic food and ecstatic dancing. I also did a book on a place in Chicago called Misericordia started by Sister Rosemary Connelly. It’s a campus for people who have developed mental problems. Life starts at nine in the morning. They do work projects, they work on computers, they do athletics, there are parties all the time. And their personalities emerge, so it’s a very joyous book and it’s been helping them.

Right now I’m doing a series on Father [Michael] Pfleger, who works on the South Side of Chicago as well as the whole situation that’s going on there. I’m shooting it with a Nikon D800E.

What are some of the problems that make that part of the city so dangerous?
Every street, every block is a nation, and they’re all competing with each other. Most of the shootings are not drug-related. Each block has got its shooters and its poets. If a poet writes or says something that’s offensive to someone on the next block, there’s a shootout. The value of human life is not taken into account. The kids feel they’re not going anywhere. Most of them can’t get jobs. They go from prison to the street to prison, so they basically have two homes. Nothing matches what they can sell on the street. Also, the education system is very bad there. You have 16-year-olds who can’t read or write. You have all these elements coming together.

What can be done about it?
That’s what we all are trying to find out. Better jobs where they feel they have a future and better education. All those things will help, but there’s no immediate answer because the gang becomes more important. Usually the fathers have left the family. A lot of the mothers want to have more kids because they get more money from the government. They may have three or four kids from different fathers. It’s not just a drug problem, it’s much more involved than that.

I’m still very interested in things that really influence other people and can possibly be helpful in the way we see things. I go at least once a month to Saint Sabina where Father Pfleger talks. To my mind he’s as strong as Dr. King and John Lewis in the way he talks and moves people. He inherited a church which had been basically white, then the whites moved out of that neighborhood. He’s white and has a black congregation. He’s an extremely emotional speaker.

One day he told them to go out and find prostitutes and to try and get them to change their viewpoint. On another occasion he and a compatriot spray-painted out liquor ads, for which they were arrested, but the judge let them off. I photographed peace marches throughout the South Side, where 750 kids were killed last year. He really has the spirit of the civil rights leaders of the sixties, so I have enormous respect for him. My mind is much more into things that involve the world we live in.

And we are in a particularly interesting time in our nation’s history.
A little too interesting.

All photographs copyright Steve Schapiro. See more of his work at steveschapiro.com. Schapiro is represented by the Fahey/Klein Gallery in Los Angeles, CA; Monroe Gallery in Santa Fe, NM; and Jackson Fine Art in Atlanta, GA.

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“Vote," Selma March, 1965