For the last 50 years, photographer Steve Schapiro—“Life,” “Time,” “Rolling Stone,” “Vanity Fair,” “Look”—captured virtually all the monumental ups and downs and diversity of American life: From snapping pics of RFK on the campaign trail and bringing to life Martin Luther King’s motel room just hours after he was shot to being on the sets of such iconic movies as “Taxi Driver,” “Chinatown” and “The Godfather” and, of course, his moving fly-on-the-wall series on life in Harlem, Schapiro’s photos have a powerful and emotional range second to none. TREATS! talks to the legendary photographer about his new book, “Then and Now,” capturing Marlon Brando morphing into Don Corleone & why young photographers should publish their own books. by Rob Hill
First off, when did you know you wanted to become a photographer?
I started photographing when I was about nine years old at summer camp and was enchanted by how the images of the clouds I had photographed, appeared on my small deckle edged prints as they came out of the developing solution. I became really serious about photography when I was a teenager.
What was your big break?
A small magazine named “Jubilee” published the first photo essays I did on Migrant Workers in Arkansas and Narcotic Addiction in East Harlem. But what really helped was that the photo editor for the “New York Times” Magazine, Rick Fredericks, started giving me small assignments. Finally, after consistently going up to “Life” Magazine, the photo editor gave me an assignment which worked out and I started working regularly for “Life” and other major picture magazines in the early sixties.
You seemed to always find your way on to film sets. Did you want to become a movie set photographer?
I never was a unit photographer. I was what is called a “special photographer” who comes in for major scenes and is there to develop images for advertising and publicity. At that time you also placed your photographs yourself in publications both in the US and elsewhere. I never saw myself as someone who would work exclusively on films.
You also designed many movie posters, including “Midnight Cowboy,” “Taxi Driver” and “The Godfather Part III.” How did this come about?
The poster for “Midnight Cowboy” of Dustin Hoffman and John Voight came out of a story I was doing for “Look” Magazine on Dustin. It was a moment between scenes where I saw them standing together. ”Look” Magazine used the photo in the Dustin story and the studio liked it so much that it became the logo for the film. “Taxi Driver” came out of normal casual shooting on the street while the camera was rolling and the shot for “Godfather 3” was very involved because we needed the backlight coming though the window behind Al Pacino. The scene they were filming next door took so long we lost most of the backlight. It turned out that I had to take the photo as a 4 second exposure. Al Pacino is not used to sitting still and as soon as the one strobe light we used to illuminate his face, went off he would quickly get up from the chair and move off. My first roll was completely double exposed, but we explained the situation to him and we ended up shooting at 3 seconds and it is a straight print except for tasking out the reflection of that one strobe light we used.
In addition to shooting musicians and celebrities, you also documented the social tumult of the 60s and 70s with striking photos of addiction, riots, and political campaigns. How is shooting these different?
For me, there is no difference in photographing a documentary event or on a film set. I am looking for the same things, the spirit of the person or the spirit of the event. The only difference is that in the outside world you never quite know what might happen next but on a film set if you have read the script you have as good ideas of what to expect.
Your new book, “Then and Now,” is a real gem, and captures almost a half-century of pop culture pictures. What were your feelings assembling the book?
I wanted to do a book that as much as possible was interesting on every page. I see a lot of photo books which have maybe six or seven great photographs and the rest of the book does not always interest you as much. When my wife Maura and I started editing the book we tried to play pictures off of one another. So the very first two pictures we put together were Jane Fonda in her Workout outfit on the right hand page and two Sumo wrestlers o n the left. We did not necessarily follow through with this idea throughout but we did include many enjoyable surprises life Francis Ford Coppola coming out one morning in Corleone, Sicily to find his mother dressed exactly like him with a false beard and mustache, or the very emotional story of how I was able to photograph Lonnie Ali at the exact moment when she and Muhammad Ali first met. Lonnie was little 6-year-old girl with pigtails and he was 21. Eventually, they married and they are still married today.
Do you have a favorite photo or two?
There are a lot of photos I feel strongly about. Martin Luther King’s motel room several hours after he was killed; Bobby Kennedy campaigning; Woody Allen with an ant on a leash. There are a lot of them.
Let’s talk a little bit about some of your subjects and what they were like to shoot and be around etc.? First, Robert De Niro in full “Taxi Driver” combat costume, posed in front of his cab with Mohican and an improbably chirpy smile?
The chirpy smile you talk about is part of De Niro’s real character. Bobby is a consummate actor who becomes his character inside and out and when the camera stops rolling he continues to be the character he plays.
Jack Nicholson, nose bandaged, tongue out at the camera on the set of “Chinatown”?
Nicholson like to fool around in a relaxed way, and between takes on a film, he is prone to do the unexpected. You have to be always ready.
Marlon Brando, grinning with theatrical devilishness while being made up for “The Godfather”?
Brando allowed me to photograph his makeup process of turning from a 47 year old actor into the aging Don Corleone. Suddenly, there was a relaxed moment and I caught it.
Johnny Depp is adept at playing characters that are not himself. He is extremely likeable and particularly nice to everyone.
On the movie “Papillon”, Ali McGraw accompanied him. Every morning she would come out of their room with either her thumb up or down. Down meant stay away.
He had the wide reputation of being an especially nice guy. We were filming in Miami close to where he could be near his racing car.
Robert Redford is a great actor. I worked with him on several films including “The Great Gatsby” and “The Way We Were.” His good looks and athleticism helped to make him a strong film idol.
One of the great losses to America was the assassination of Robert Kennedy, who brought intelligence and sense of caring to all that he met.
Martin Luther King?
Martin Luther King Jr’s leadership changed America. He brought a non-violent policy into the Civil Rights revolution in America.
Photographers don’t get the access today they used to get. How has this changed how we see our favorite stars?
While working for “Life” and other magazines in the sixties, you were usually on a one to one relationship with the person you were photographing. You also tended to work on a story for a longer period of time that you do today and you would keep photographing until you had really captured something special about your subject. Today public relations and handlers make the process much more impersonal and there are fewer chances for finding those strong emotional moments, which gives the sense of a special person.
Finally, any advice for up and coming photographers today?
Today it is much harder for young photographers to find their start in publications. In the 60’s if you had a good idea there was always some publication that would assign you to do it. For photographers starting out today, the opportunities exist in publishing your own book very cheaply and what can be developed on the Internet.