Remembering Steve Schapiro
Photojournalist Steve Schapiro has passed away. He was age 87. Beginning as a freelance photojournalist in 1961, Steve captured some of the defining moments of the 1960s, during a critical turning point of American history. He photographed the March on Washington, as well as Selma to Montgomery. At the time, the authorities tried to prevent him from taking photos of the marches. At one point, they even took away his undeveloped film. But, he gave the man his unexposed rolls and hid the exposed films, tucked away in his shirt. Those images became some of the most revered photos, chronicling the civil rights movement.
I had convinced Steve to an interview; but, only because I had just finished filming a biopic on Bobby Kennedy’s legacy, This Ain’t Harvard, which was told from the perspective of the last man surviving of Kennedy’s inner circle of five, on the 1968 campaign trail. Steve told me that he was Bobby’s official photographer on the South American tour, and he would agree to the interview, if we could talk about his memories of Bobby.
It was October 22, 2019, two months before the COVID-19 pandemic would hit the U.S. and close down the world as we knew it. I was on my last day of the three-day film project, a candid interview of the legendary Steve Schapiro, at locations all around Chicago: from the Museum of Modern Art, rising amid the downtown skyscrapers, to a brownstone artist’s studio on the industrial side of town. But, on that last day, I directed my film crew at the Drumbar, a speakeasy designed with all the cool elegance of that era, belonging to the man I was to capture for all posterity, Steve Schapiro. There he sat, alone at the bar, blending into the Art Deco scene, as the bartender slid a martini into place before him and Steve turned to the camera to begin his thoughts on Kennedy, “So, what makes a man an icon?” I was enthralled, elated, and grateful to hear this iconic man’s stories, of the people, places, and events that shaped the 20th century.
In the decades after the civil rights movement, Steve had worked as the on set photographer for motion pictures, producing images for The Godfather, Midnight Cowboy, First Blood, Risky Business, and The Way We Were. He also photographed legendary musicians such as Barbra Streisand and David Bowie, the latter immortalized in published tomes. Steve was a friend to Andy Warhol and had unrestricted access to chronicle the Velvet Underground. Monographs of Steve’s work include American Edge, which recounts the political turbulence of the 1960s, and Schapiro’s Heroes, profiling 10 figures that the photographer collaborated with, including Muhammad Ali, Andy Warhol, Martin Luther King Jr., Robert Kennedy, Ray Charles, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, James Baldwin, Samuel Beckett, Barbra Streisand, and Truman Capote. His work is part of private and public collections, including the Smithsonian Museum, the High Museum of Art, the New York Metropolitan Museum, and the Getty Museum.
Longtime friend David Fahey, owner of Fahey/Klein Gallery, explained, “There are six skills required to create unique, indelible pictures, those being instinct, intuition, curiosity, experience, trust, and talent. Steve Schapiro had them all. He made the kind of images that reminded you to contemplate. Either historical moments or influential people. He just knew how to reach into their soul and make that photo, which projected their personality.”
But, Steve was humble about his life’s work. He once said, “I try to be a fly on the wall as much as possible. For me, emotion is the strongest quality in a picture.”
David Fahey summed up the life of the legendary talent, “Steve’s work is hard-hitting, message-driven photographs. They have their own innate beauty, but it’s not typical beauty. To the end, Steve transcribed the world around him through his camera.”
Steve Schapiro is survived by Maura Smith, his wife of 39 years; sons Theophilus Donoghue and Adam Shapiro; and daughters Elle Harvey and Taylor Schapiro.
Alicia St. John is an author, publisher, and filmmaker based in Montecito.