By: Rick Kogan
Jan. 19, 2022 at 5:30 am
Chicago photographer Steve Schapiro is dead at 87. He captured the world with his camera, from the civil rights era to De Niro.
What you would realize after spending but a few minutes in the delightful company of photographer Steve Schapiro is that he was present at some of the most important events of the 20th century and that he knew hundreds of newsmakers and stars.
He spent his long life with cameras strung around his neck, ever curious and self-effacing.
His life ended Jan. 15, when Schapiro died as result of pancreatic cancer. He wife Maura and one of his sons, Theophilus Donoghue, were with him. He was 87 years old.
For most of his life, Schapiro was a globe-trotter of the most inexhaustible sort as he pursued his career as a freelance photographer. He was based in Chicago for the past 20 years after living for a quarter of a century in Los Angeles.
“My wife, Maura, is from Chicago and has 33 first cousins, and they all live here,” he told me years ago. “This is a great city, a much easier place to live than New York or Los Angeles.”
He and his wife had been married for nearly 40 years and lived here in a stylish apartment overlooking the lake. But for most of his life he was elsewhere: on the movie sets for such films as “The Godfather,” “Taxi Driver,” “Paper Moon,” “Chinatown” and “The King of Comedy,” as well as photographing a 21-year-old Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay) greeting a bunch of children as he sat on the stoop of his parents’ Louisville home in 1963; on the presidential campaign trail with Robert Kennedy and on and on.
Here are just a few of the people he knew and artfully captured with his camera: Marlon Brando, Andy Warhol, Martin Luther King Jr., Jerry Garcia, Bill Evans, Sonny Rollins, Simon and Garfunkel, Barbra Streisand, Robert De Niro, Orson Welles, Salvador Dali, David Hockney, Johnny Depp, Mae West, Satchel Paige, Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra, Ringo Starr, Ike and Tina Turner (together), Samuel Beckett, Truman Capote, Arthur Miller, Buster Keaton, Richard Pryor, Sophia Loren.
He became very close to some. Chevy Chase asked Schapiro and his wife to be the godparents of his daughter, and David Bowie used a Schapiro photo for the cover of his 2014 “Nothing Has Changed” album. “It was 1974 when I first photographed David,” he told me. “From the moment he arrived, we seemed to hit it off. He was incredibly intelligent, calm and filled with ideas.”
When some of his Bowie photos were exhibited at Ed Paschke Art Center on the Northwest Side in 2016, in the wake of the performer’s death, Schapiro told me, “Over these many years I would find photos of David in my files, photos that I had totally overlooked, unexpected and pleasant surprises. Working with an amazingly talented person can be collaborative, often unspoken. The photographs I took were David’s ideas, brought from his imagination into the real world. I was merely the conduit from genius into the light of day.”
Schapiro was born in November 1934 and raised in New York City and first picked up a camera when he was attending a summer camp. As he told me some years ago, “I was 9 years old, and I loved clouds and took pictures of them, and then, watching the photos come to life in the dark room, found that there was magic in photography.” He kept at it during his teenage years, discovering Henri Cartier-Bresson and studying with W. Eugene Smith, a legendarily uncompromising photojournalist.
He attended Amherst College and graduated from Bard College before embarking on a freelance career in the 1960s. Shooting for Life, Time, Look, Newsweek, Rolling Stone and other publications during the ensuing decades — what he calls “the golden age of photojournalism” — he captured migrant workers in Arkansas and MLK’s 1963 march in Selma.
He was there in 1967 as the Summer of Love colorfully overwhelmed the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood in San Francisco.
“There was such an emotional flow to these events that it gave me the chance to do pictures that captured the spirit of an event or a person,” he said.
His shot of Mia Farrow was the cover of the first People magazine.
In the face of all this fame, Schapiro was relatively unknown outside photography circles. That’s because in conversation he was not at all self-promoting. Diminutive and soft-spoken, he has a quick smile, sparkling eyes and a lot of energy, but it is easy to imagine how inconspicuously he was able to fit onto movie sets or into protest marches.
When asked about his encounters, he was admirably coy.
What was Brando like?
“He was sweet and tender,” he said.
Who was the most unpleasant subject?
“Oh, I could never tell you that,” he said. “Many things stay between me and the people I photograph.”
He had much acclaim, with many gallery exhibitions here and abroad, and his work is in the collections of the Smithsonian, the National Portrait Gallery and other prestigious places. He published many books, among them “American Edge” (2000), “Schapiro’s Heroes” (2007), “The Godfather Family Album” (2008) and “Taxi Driver” (2010).
In 2014 came “Then and Now,” a marvelous collection with photos of many famous people but also many of children, whether in India in 2005 or on Halloween 1960 in Brooklyn Heights. There is also a haunting shot of some former St. Patrick’s Day Parade queens atop a float waiting for the parade to begin in Chicago.
At that time, thumbing through that book, he told me, “In all of my books, I want to have something interesting on every page. All of us are unique, and we work with that. I think we are on the way to a day when cameras as we have known them will be obsolete. We will be using just cellphones to take photos as the technology advances and the quality gets better. But I will ever believe that it is the photographer who counts, not the camera.”
Jason Marck, a longtime senior producer and radio host with WBEZ, not to mention a talented and passionate amateur photographer, first met Schapiro in 2007. “I was astounded by his career and his work,” said Marck. “Even more amazing was that he lived here, this legend in our midst.”
The two would become friends, with the Schapiros often accompanying Marck and his wife Sharone and their two boys, Ari and Elan, on trips to such places as Ravinia, Lincoln Park Zoo and the Botanic Gardens. They often dined together. “They had no grandchildren of their own and I think just fell in love with our boys,” said Marck. “Knowing them was one of the great joys of my life. Steve was a person of such immense talent but also great humility and humanity.”
Schapiro is survived by his wife and son, another son, Adam Schapiro, and daughters Elle Harvey and Taylor Schapiro. There will be a private funeral and a memorial planned for the spring.