The list of people Steve Schapiro has photographed reads more like a Who’s Who list of the 1960s and ‘70s. During his career, Schapiro worked for magazines such as Life, Time, Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair and captured the images of influential politicians, celebrities and musicians. He also extensively covered the Civil Rights Movement in the South.
Those icons - Jackie Kennedy, Ray Charles and James Baldwin - are who Schapiro labels "Heroes" in an exhibit of work is on display at the West Baton Rouge Museum in Port Allen.
WESTERMAN: Welcome, Steve Schapiro.
SCHAPIRO: Thanks a lot. It’s great to be with you.
WESTERMAN: I have in front of me the postcard that the museum is putting out to promote your exhibit and the event on April 12 and it’s a black and white photo - and let me just describe it to our listeners for a second - it’s a black and white photo and it’s of Robert F. Kennedy standing in what looks like the back of a car, an open top car. And he’s staying and there is just this huge crowd of people reaching out to him. How did you get in that situation where you could take a photograph like that?
SCHAPIRO: Well, in the ‘60s when I first really starting working professionally, I was lucky enough to work for Life Magazine and I did an enormous amount of Civil Rights stuff and also I traveled with Bobby Kennedy. I did his campaign posters, I went to South America with him and I spent time at Hickory Hill, which is his home. This particular picture you’re talking about was taken in California. This is 1966. Bobby was incredibly popular with people. I always felt he was the consummate politician and of all the people in politics I’ve ever met, he’s the one I most respect because he had both the intelligent, the sense of caring and also the ability to play politics and it’s very rare, I think, for a politicians to have all three of those qualities.
WESTERMAN: Robert F. Kennedy is one of the people displayed in your exhibit “Heroes” and this exhibit also includes photographs of people like Samuel Beckett, Muhammad Ali and Barbara Streisand. Now since you, Steve Schapiro, get to choose what photographs go into the exhibit - how did you define the word “heroes” when making your selections?
SCHAPIRO: Heroes was really people who have influenced me in one way or another. Or who I felt had great influence on our culture during the time period I photographed. It’s strange in the sense that most of these photographs were taken in the 1960s, the 1970s and yet all the people in the book still are iconic figures for us and are still very important, which I think is a rare quality, a rare situation. I don’t think it happens a lot.
WESTERMAN: How long do you need to spend with a subject to feel like you’re getting real pictures of them and not just more pictures of a celebrity or an icon?
SCHAPIRO: It’s really a tricky thing to say, in a sense, for example, I’ve worked with a lot of actors and with many actors they really know who they are in a role that they’re playing. But in many instances when you’re photographing someone as they really are, in terms of who they are as themselves, they get confused as to who they should be and they don’t really know what image to project. On the other hand, with especially talented people, it becomes a collaboration and both of you are working towards getting good pictures, hopefully iconic pictures. Pictures that will really give you a feeling for that person and also will intensify the qualities that you really like about that person.
WESTERMAN: So do you all just hang out? What’s the process like?
SCHAPIRO: I am a little fly on the wall. Basically, I try to get at the spirit, at the whole sense of that person, at their spirit. And the best way to do that is to let them be themselves and be as quiet as possible. If someone’s talking to me and we’re having a conversation, they’re thinking about me. I don’t want them to be thinking about me. I want them to be in their own world and I want to try and catch the high moments of their own world. It could take a few hours, it could take a few days, it could take a longer time than that.
WESTERMAN: Sure. Well, that being said, with the advent of digital photography and cameras on our phones, do you feel like photojournalism is a lost art at this point now that it seems like everyone can be a photojournalist if they want to be?
SCHAPIRO: Communications constantly changes and basically what you had - we had film cameras, now you have digital cameras. Digital cameras, for me, also create a good thing and a bad thing. The bad thing is that human emotion is often best displayed in black and white. And if you have a situation between two people, which is emotional, and then suddenly someone in a yellow slicker walks between them. When you see the picture, your eye is going to go right to that person because the color will attract your eye. At the same time with digital, you can easily look at the back of your camera and say, “Oh, I can do this better.”
More From WRKF's interview with photographer Steve Schapiro
The exhibition “Heroes: Photographs By Steve Schapiro” is currently running through June 9 at the West Baton Rouge Museum. A lecture, book signing and meet-and-greet with Steve Schapiro will be hosted at the museum Friday, April 12 at 6:30pm.
NOTE: The West Baton Rouge Museum is an underwriter of WRKF.