“reFramed” is a feature showcasing fine art photography and vision-forward photojournalism. It is curated by Los Angeles Times staff photographer Barbara Davidson. twitter@photospice
Steve Schapiro has a knack for being at the right place, at the right time. In the 60’s working for Life and other magazines he covered Robert Kennedy’s
Presidential Campaign, the Selma March with Martin Luther King, Muhammad Ali playing monopoly at home, Jacqueline Kennedy in Washington and everything from Presidents to poodle, as well as the first People Magazine cover. He has gained a strong reputation for his photo documentary work and is represented in museums all over the world. When Life and Look folded, he worked as a special photographer on films, Taschen publishing brought out his book ‘The Godfather Family Album” with photographs from all 3 Godfather films, and also his book on ‘Taxi Driver” with Robert De Niro. He has done posters for films as diverse as Midnight Cowboy, Godfather 3, and Billy Madison.
His recent show in Chicago was devoted to Andy Warhol, Lou Reed, the Velvet Underground, and David Bowie. In September his book “BLISS” about the Neo
Hippie Movement today will be published and later in the fall Taschen will release his photo book on Civil Rights in America.
Q: You’ve had a long successful career in photojournalism. Can you tell us about your professional path?
A: As a teenager with a strong interest in photography, it seemed to me the most I could aspire to was to work for Life Magazine. I set about doing my own self-assigned photo essays, photographing at a migrant worker’s camp in Arkansas for four weeks and projects like Narcotic Addiction in East Harlem. I would keep bringing my photos to the Life picture editor and finally they gave me an assignment. That worked out and then I started working consistently for Life and other magazines. Persistence is everything.
Q: What were the circumstances that led you to cover the historic 1965 march led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., to demand free and clear voting rights for African Americans?
A: When James Baldwin’s essay “The Fire Next Time” appeared in the New Yorker magazine, I asked LIFE if I could do a long photo essay with Baldwin. Both he and they agreed and I spent the next weeks traveling in the South with James. As a New York semi-hippie this was a new experience and opened my eyes to a situation of the inequality I had only read about. After that, I covered many other civil rights stories in the South for Life and other magazines, including George Wallace standing in the doorway at Tuscaloosa, the March on Washington and the Summer of ’64 Mississippi Voter Registration drive. It was only natural to want to cover the Selma March which seemed to have such relevance and a possible spur to the passage of the Voter Registration Act.
Q: As one of the four photographers in a Fahey/Klein Gallery exhibition, what did you recognize as the most important aspect you wanted to capture in the short time you were there?
A: Working as a magazine photographer in the 60’s, your immediate concern was whether the pictures you were taking that day would make it into the magazine the following week. You never thought your photographs would be considered to have importance 50 years later. In 1965 photo galleries did not exist the way they do today. Journalism brought you the images of the day and then they were quickly gone.
Q: Did you ever imagine the photos you made at the rally would have the historical significance that they do now? Did you feel you were documenting something historic at the time?
A: Preparing a book of my civil rights photographs for Taschen, to be published later this year, I went through my contact sheets from Selma and for the first time, found some of my strongest photographs that had never been, edited, printed or published. Last December, the New Yorker did a 12 page portfolio of my Selma photos and more than half of them were discovered images only a few months before.
Q: What was it like rediscovering your photographs after not seeing them for so many years, and realizing you recorded this historic time and place?
A: One of the most amazing discoveries I found was a single frame image, tucked away inconspicuously on an old contact sheet. It is a panoramic image of Dr. King, with his aides, Andrew Young, Dr. Ralph Abernathy and John Lewis at the head of the Selma March, all deep in their own thoughts and not posing for pictures. Behind them you see all of the marchers that were allowed to travel the highway from Selma to Montgomery. It is amazing that this small contingent of only 300 marchers could have such a strong impact on American history.
Q: How long did you cover the event and where (and how) were the images published?
A: While I photographed the entire Selma March, very few of my photographs appeared in Life and other magazines at the time.
Q: What was it like to photograph Martin Luther King? Was he very charismatic?
A: While Dr. King was an amazingly charismatic leader who had the strength of words to morally inspire an entire country, when I looked back at my contact sheets I see a man that in image after image in public situations seem to be scouring the crowd with his eyes, as if the many death threats he received daily might have credence at any moment.
Q: Have you ever been back to photograph in Alabama at that location since? If so, what brought you back?
A: I returned to Selma this year for the 50th anniversary of the March. The crowds were overwhelming and John Lewis was given a well-deserved honor. I thought it would be a reunion of spirits as it must have been for some. But times have changed. The list of media persona allowed to photograph and record went on for 7 pages with 100 names per page and it was impossible to move unless you arrived on Obama’s helicopter. Probably there was strong interest in seeing the President and he gave a fine speech. The next day everyone could cross the Edmund Pettus bridge with no threat of potential violence. There is even a move to rename the bridge.
Q: What are you working on these days?
A: I have a book “BLISS” which comes out in September about the Neo Hippie Movement today and a Taschen book on Civil Rights which is also scheduled for the fall. Presently I have been photographing Misericordia, a 35-acre residence and workspace for people with developmental problems, such as Downs Syndrome. There are 600 residents, who before coming here probably spent their time alone in a room all day or staring at a television set. At Misercordia they are happily from early morning to night at, work, art, sports and yoga. It is one of the most joyous places I have ever been to.