WITNESSING HISTORY THROUGH A LENS

In Arts & Life /

By Armina Ligaya

He stood in Martin Luther King’s hotel room just hours after the civil rights leader was killed.

He hung out with Mohammed Ali, strolling the streets of the boxer’s town. He even hobnobbed with actors Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino. And, lucky for us, photographer Steve Schapiro brought his camera along for the ride.

Schapiro’s iconic photographs from the turbulent ’60s and ’70s are part of Ryerson’s Black Star Historical Black and White Photo Collection.

He is also the final speaker of the Kodak Lecture Series, hosted by the School of Image Arts — and he’s got a lot to talk about. The 70 year-old has had an illustrious career as a photographer.

From politician Robert Kennedy to The Rolling Stones, Schapiro has taken photos of the most famous people from the past four decades.

His work has appeared in Life Magazine, the New York Times and has been exhibited at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. But Schapiro never planned on being a photographer.

“It’s something which interested me probably from the age of nine,” he says, from his Massachusetts home. “I really thought I’d be a writer.” He wrote one novel — a bad one — before he found himself back in photography.

It wasn’t long until Schapiro started doing his own projects, including photos about drug addiction in Harlem, New York.

Eventually, some shots he took of migrant workers ended up being used as a cover story for the New York Times.

Not bad for someone who never formally studied photography. “I don’t have as natural an eye as some photographers,” he says. “Growing up, there were people who were automatics… but, it was something I wanted to do, and I pushed to do it.”

Schapiro worked as a photography assistant, built up a portfolio and set his sights on one publication: Life Magazine.

“When I grew up, the whole big deal was to become a Life photographer,” he says. “I kept going to Life with a portfolio, and finally, it worked.”

Assignments for the magazine sent Schapiro all over the United States covering the major events of the ’60s. “I really chronicled what I felt interested me in terms of where our society’s civilization (was),” he says.

One such moment was the reeling tension after Martin Luther King’s assassination. Schapiro was in New York in April 1968 when Life immediately put him on a plane to Memphis, Tenn.

He managed to get into King’s untouched hotel room to photograph it just before it was closed off. “It’s a very strong picture,” Schapiro says. “It’s really the sense that the actual man is gone, but his material belongings are left behind.”

By the mid-’70s, Schapiro jumped from documentary-style photos to snapping shots on movie sets. “Life and Look (magazine) folded, and it seemed to me the world was going ga-ga for celebrities.”

Schapiro took photos on the sets of classic movies such as Taxi Driver, with a young DeNiro, and all the Godfather films. “There’s a type of energy in working on films,” Schapiro says.

But Schapiro’s interest remains in documentary photography. “I (would) much rather do something that involves human emotions,” he says.

“I don’t know why it works. It’s that strange element, what makes a good photo. It’s elusive.” Schapiro will lecture on April 7 at 7:30 p.m. at the Centre for Computing and Engineering.

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