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Photographer Steve Schapiro, Whose Photos Captured Civil Rights, Arts ‘time capsules,’ Dead at 87

Chicago Sun Times

By: Maureen O'Donnell

Jan 21, 2022, 2:00pm CST


Photographer Steve Schapiro captured buoyant, carefree pictures of a dancing James Baldwin, Robert F. Kennedy engulfed by adoring crowds and a bike-riding Muhammad Ali surrounded by joyful young cyclists.

In another of his dynamic images, he framed Andy Warhol, his head tilted in seeming enchantment, beaming at 1960s “It Girl” Edie Sedgwick.

But one of the most powerful photos the renowned Chicago photographer created is a still life, showing no people but capturing a palpable sense of loss. It’s of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Memphis motel room after the civil rights icon was assassinated.

On a table, the photo shows a rumpled shirt, an open carton of milk and a coffee cup. A fork and some toast are still on a plate. Above, a wall-mounted TV shows a somber news announcer with a picture of King, captioned with his name and “1929-1968.” An open briefcase provides a peek of King’s book “Strength to Love.”

“The physical man was gone, his material things remained — and yet he still hovered over us,” Mr. Schapiro once told Fox News.

Mr. Schapiro died of pancreatic cancer at his Streeterville home on Jan. 15, according to his son Theophilus Donoghue. He was 87

“The day that Dr. King got killed, he was the first one who got inside Dr. King’s hotel room,” said the Rev. Michael Pfleger of Chicago’s St. Sabina Catholic Church, who baptized Mr. Schapiro a few months ago. “He was an amazing man who had a passion for justice.”

His range was vast. He shot some of the most enduring images of the past century not only of civil rights giants but also of prominent figures and moments in music, movies and art. He photographed migrant workers, residents of Chicago’s Misericordia Home, the making of classic movies.

His self-described “fly-on-the-wall” approach and a gentle persona helped relax his subjects. Their trust allowed him to capture stunningly candid images of King, John Lewis, Ali, David Bowie, Barbara Streisand, jazz greats Bill Evans and Sonny Rollins, writers Samuel Beckett, Truman Capote and Arthur Miller and artists Salvador Dali, David Hockney and René Magritte, among others.

“He would win the trust of those he photographed with an impish smile and palpable love,” jazz singer Kurt Elling said. “In return for that trust, he treated all those caught by his searching lens with equal tender care.”

“In his sympathetic presence, subjects were at ease,” said film director Michael Mann, who owns some of Mr. Schapiro’s works. “They became unguarded and revealed the inner self and the soul of the moment, the circumstances and themselves. That’s what Steve captured, and his work is uniquely empathetic. It sends a message — this is what really is.

“Steve created the most uniquely empathetic images of his or any other generation,” Mann said. “It wasn’t his ‘method.’ It’s who he was in his heart and soul. People he photographed sensed that, relaxed conventional defenses, and he captured uncategorizable moments.”

Actor Gary Oldman described his photos as “time capsules.”

“They capture a certain moment in time,” Oldman said. “To have been able to photograph Martin Luther King so intimately, to photograph David Bowie so intimately. . . it really speaks to the personality of Steve. He was an angel of a man.”

Oldman and his wife Gisele Schmidt — who once worked as a gallery director for Fahey/Klein, a Los Angeles gallery that represents Mr. Schapiro — collected so many of his photos that Oldman said of their home: “You’re never far from a Schapiro when you visit.”

“He was one of the most accomplished photojournalists of the past century,” author and former Sun-Times picture editor Rich Cahan said.

“There’s just nobody else that had that kind of range but also the viewpoint that he brought to all of these different subjects,” said Sidney S. Monroe of the Monroe Gallery in Santa Fe, N.M., which also represents the photographer. ”They were all photographed lovingly, with such humanity.”

“His work is basically transcendent,” Schmidt said. “He was never pigeonholed.”

Mr. Schapiro’s work appeared in many of the biggest magazines: Life, Look, Newsweek, Paris Match, Rolling Stone, Time, Vanity Fair, Sports Illustrated. His photos are in the collections of the Smithsonian Institution, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Getty Museum.

His images of the civil rights movement — he photographed the 1963 March on Washington and the 1965 Selma to Montgomery March — radiate with the demonstrators’ courage and determination. In addition to Lewis and King and his wife Coretta Scott King, Mr. Schapiro made pictures of civil right icons including Rosa Parks and A. Phillip Randolph.

“He was important to the movement,” tweeted filmmaker Ava DuVernay, the director of “Selma.” “His images moved minds during a crucial time.”

“His civil rights photographs have contributed to the long-overdue racial reckoning,” said Fahey/Klein founder David Fahey.

“He just wanted to do things to make the world better,” his wife Maura Smith said.

Mr. Schapiro sensed the danger civil right marchers faced.

Working in Philadelphia, Mississippi, for Life magazine, “We heard that a church had been bombed. We passed the church and found that it had been totally leveled,” he said in an interview with Fahey. “And then we heard that three civil rights workers were missing. . . So we drove in and parked our car. And suddenly I saw this big, burly sheriff standing there. And I started taking pictures of him. And he came over to me slowly, and he came up to me, and he took the camera out of my hand. He opened the back of the camera, pulled out the film. . . threw it on the ground and then handed me back my camera. And I didn’t know how lucky I was. He was Sheriff Rainey.”

Rainey later was indicted on but found not guilty of civil rights violations that accused him of conspiring in the killings of the civil rights workers.

“We were often followed with James Baldwin,” Mr. Schapiro said. “I was at Medgar Evers’ house, and Medgar Evers came out and put a towel over our license plate of our rental car — which was more of a joke than anything serious in that we knew we we were all under surveillance…. And in June of that year, 1963, he was shot and killed in his driveway.”

Though he’d lived in Chicago for nearly 20 years, Mr. Schaprio never lost the Bronx accent from his New York youth.

At 9, he became interested in photography at summer camp. Young Steve’s interest in social documentary was stoked by studying with photographer W. Eugene Smith. Smith published memorable images in Life, including the 1948 “Country Doctor” photo essay and a searing 1972 image of a Japanese mother bathing her daughter, whose body had been deformed by mercury poisoning in the Minamata chemical waste disaster.

As the great photo magazines faded, Mr. Schapiro trained his lens on Hollywood in the late 1960s and 1970s.

He photographed the making of movies, publicity material and posters. He shot director Martin Scorsese in the back of Robert De Niro’s cab in “Taxi Driver,” a grinning Jack Nicholson with a bandaged nose from “Chinatown” and Francis Ford Coppola directing Marlon Brando in “The Godfather.”

He also worked on “Apocalypse Now,” “Nashville,” “Paper Moon” and “The Way We Were.”

He made an image of a huddling Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight for the poster of “Midnight Cowboy.”

Later, he photographed “Back to the Future” and “Risky Business.”

On a blind date in Los Angeles, he met his future wife, a Homewood-Flossmoor High School alum who studied film at the University of Southern California and directed the 1978 movie “Towing,” with Dennis Franz, Sue Lyon, Joe Mantegna and Mike Nussbaum. She said the pull of family drew them back to the Chicago area, where she has 33 first cousins.

Also, she said, in Chicago, “We could live smaller. Life is expensive in Los Angeles.”

Mr. Schapiro enjoyed dining at Rosebud on Rush and visiting Chicago art fairs. He collected books on photography and the arts, said Stephen Daiter of the Stephen Daiter Gallery.

In 2016, he produced “Together We Celebrate,” a book about Misericordia.

“He portrayed each resident as a loving gift from God,” said Sister Rosemary Connelly, who chairs the Misericordia Foundation.

A year ago, Mr. Schapiro traveled to the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind., to protest executions there.

He has several photo books still set to come out in the future, relatives said.

Mr. Schapiro also is survived by his children Adam and Taylor Schapiro, Elle Harvey and four grandchildren. Funeral arrangements are pending.

His message on his voicemail conveys the gentle approach that earned him the trust of photo subjects:

“I hope you’re having a great day. I am. And I hope to talk to you real soon. Please call again, leave your number, and I’ll get back to you very, very quickly if I can. And if I can’t, I love you.”