American Photographer Steve Shapiro is one of the icons of 20th-century world photography. Shapiro is presenting his work in Switzerland at the Maison du Diable – Espace Culturel de la Fondation Fellini through September. The exhibition will highlight the worlds he’s captured over the decades, including cinema, music, art, and the 1965 Civil Rights march in Selma, Alabama. New Europe’s Federico Grandesso spoke with Shapiro on the sidelines of his Expo “American Icons – Photografies de Steven Shapiro”.
NEW EUROPE (NE): How did you enter into the photography world?
STEVE SHAPIRO (SS): I started when I was 9 years old. We used to develop our own negatives and see the print come out of the fixer. It was really amazing…like magic. That was the very first moment I started to like photography. Where I lived, I was together with very amateur photographers in a photo club. At that time, I didn’t have much training in photography until much later when I started with William Eugene Smith for a little while. As I grew up I was really taken by Henri Cartier-Bresson and what he called a “decisive moment”, so I used to go out and try to do it just that way. At first I wasn’t getting that special “moment” but after a while, and little by little, I started getting better.
NE: Which were your first important assignments as a professional photographer?
SS: I first did work about migrant workers in Arkansas, which was very moving. A small Catholic magazine called Jubilee published it. After that, the New York Times picked it up and one of the pictures made the cover of their magazine section, but I just kept going back to Life Magazine. Life gave an assignment, which I worked on, so I almost immediately started working a lot for them. I was shooting more than a regular photographer because all the departments wanted to work with me. I was very relaxed in the way I worked. I then started making covers for Time, Newsweek, and Sport Illustrated; about movies I was called special photographer and I came to shoot things about advertising and publicity, but I wasn’t there for the entire time except on The Godfather where I ended up working for 12 weeks.
NE: Can you tell me more about your projects related to cinema?
SS: I did a book with Taschen on The Godfather – I did all the three movies then I worked on Taxi Driver which also became a book for Taschen. I worked with Barbara Streisand on several movies, then Jane Fonda, and other movie celebrities. What was important then is that I started doing movie posters and the first I did was for Midnight Cowboy where I shot a picture of Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voigt during a break. I was doing a story on Dustin for Look magazine and the editors used the picture which ended up being a logo.
NE: You are also a politically engaged photographer, how did you start to be involved in that?
I lived in New York and I had no contact about what was happening in the South. I asked Life Magazine if I could to do some photos of Civil Rights leader James Baldwin, they both accepted. I started travelling with him from Harlem to South Carolina, Mississippi and New Orleans. We spent over a month together and this turned out to be a good story. It was important for me to see for the first time what was happening in the South.
NE: You were also working with Robert F. Kennedy, how did you start this collaboration?
SS: With Bobby Kennedy I had an assignment when he was running to be a senator in New York. I spent a lot of time covering him and I also did his campaign posters. I went to South America -Colombia, Argentina, Peru – with him. He never expected to be out of the back room. He expected his brother to continue to be president. But when the story changed he had to take a prominent role in the country’s political life. Initially, he was not a good speaker and I feel the reason we went to South America was to make speeches to people who didn’t speak English so that they wouldn’t matter that much.
NE: How do you work on set or on a documentary
As a photographer, it is important to get the spirit of a person or an event. In a documentary situation you may not know what will happen in the next 5 minutes, while on a movie set if you read the script, you have good idea of what’s coming apart from the fact that you just try to get iconic pictures…that’s the main goal. When I work I try to be quiet, I prefer not to be engaged in talking with the person that I’m photographing. The person might be more concerned about our conversation and the image they are projecting. When I worked for Life Magazine, it was great because there were always a reporter doing the conversation and me just taking photos.
FG: Which of your photos do you think were the most life changing photos for you?
SS: Lots of them worked out, I think most of my pictures from The Godfather, the photos of Bobby Kennedy in Berkeley and the one with the old lady, the civil rights pictures, and the election pictures.
FG: Can you talk now about other important people you worked with? I know you met with Martin Luther King and Muhammad Ali.
SS: Martin Luther King was always looking through the crowd. He got these daily death threats and he seemed to say ‘I’m in the crowd hoping that there wasn’t any the gun’. There was a fear that something might happen at any time. We never talked about that, but I felt he felt that way. With Muhammad Ali it was fun. Ee played monopoly and I was losing my properties, but he kept lending me money. We were very relaxed and when I worked for Life Magazine I could develop a one-on-one relationship with him for the time we were shooting.