Skip to content
Steve Schapiro Obituary Acclaimed Photographer Whose Subjects Ranged from Martin Luther King to Barbra Streisand

The Times U.K.

Jan. 28, 2022 at 5:00pm


Looking into the eyes of Dr Martin Luther King, Steve Schapiro felt troubled. For all the charisma, courage and dignity that his celebrated portraits of King convey, Schapiro always detected fear in the reverend’s eyes.

“In a lot of pictures I see him looking into the crowd — here he was, this incredible leader who really inspired and was important to so many people . . . yet I find his eyes searching the crowd and I can only think that all these death threats were in the back of his mind,” he said. “There was just something in his eyes that was continuous in a lot of the pictures.”

After King was assassinated by James Earl Ray in Memphis on April 4, 1968, Schapiro was immediately flown from New York to Memphis by Life magazine. “When I got there, I found out the shots had been fired from a rooming house, so I went there and there was really no security whatsoever. The shots were fired from a second-floor bathroom, where the assailant stood in the bathtub and levelled his gun on the windowsill. I saw a dirty handprint on the wall that could only have been made by someone standing in the bathtub. I photographed it and Life used it over a full page the following week.”

Schapiro then gained access to the room at the Lorraine Motel where King had been staying. “I saw his attaché case,” he recalled. “Inside were his books and hairspray, and a magazine called Soul Force. There were worn shirts and old Styrofoam cups lying around. Then his image came on the television behind an announcer, and I photographed this all together. It became symbolic to me, in the sense that the physical man was gone for ever, his material things remained, and yet he still hovered above us.”

While documenting the civil rights movement in America from 1963 to 1968, Schapiro also looked straight in the eye of the racial hatred that motivated the killings of King and thousands of others. In 1964 he had driven to the town of Philadelphia, Mississippi, to photograph a church that had been burnt down in a racially motivated attack. When he got there he heard that three civil rights workers — two white and one black — were missing. After parking his car in the city, he could feel the tension. “Suddenly I saw this big burly sheriff and I started taking pictures of him. He came over to me, slowly took the camera out of my hand, opened the back of the camera, pulled out the roll of film, threw it on the ground and handed me back my camera.” It was Sheriff Lawrence Rainey, a Klansman and one of the alleged ringleaders of the gang that perpetrated the murders of the three civil rights workers (though Rainey was not one of the eight men convicted). The investigation of the killings would inspire the acclaimed film Mississippi Burning.

Steve Schapiro was born into a Jewish family in New York City in 1934. His parents, David and Esther, owned a stationery store in the Rockefeller Center in Manhattan. The child discovered photography at a summer camp at the age of nine, spending hours in a dark room watching fascinated as photographic paper was dipped in chemicals and images formed in front of his eyes. As a teenager he read The Decisive Moment by the great French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. From then on he roamed the streets of Manhattan with a Kodak 127 format film camera, striving to find decisive moments for his lens.

After attending Stuyvesant High School in New York, he graduated in literature at Bard College in New York state. He thought of becoming a writer, but by the time he left he had decided to tell stories in pictures rather than words. He was schooled in the technicalities of his chosen craft under the Second World War photographer W Eugene Smith, who taught him to provide two points of interest in a picture “so it’s not just a portrait of someone but you see something else that really shows you more about them or interests you, so your eye goes back and forth between the two”. Schapiro’s most famous picture of Martin Luther King used this device, with King in the foreground and the Stars and Stripes flag behind him, leaving the viewer to ponder the relationship or disconnect between King and the American flag that symbolised freedoms enshrined in the US constitution.

In 1961 Schapiro embarked on work as a freelance photographer at the dawning of what he called a “golden age in photojournalism”. Without a commission, he travelled to Arkansas to photograph migrant workers. One of his pictures was used on the cover of The New York Times Magazine. The experience gave him an early lesson in the power of his pictures when electricity was introduced to the migrant camps as a result of the article.

He was emboldened to start “pestering” Life magazine for work. “I would just keep going to Life. I did a story on narcotics addiction in East Harlem and took it to them. Finally, they gave me an assignment and I started working regularly for them.”

In 1962 he read an essay in The New Yorker by the black civil rights activist and novelist James Baldwin. Having made contact with Baldwin, whose face Schapiro said betrayed the loneliness of the struggle, he travelled with him from Harlem to New Orleans, meeting the leaders of the growing movement. Over the next five years Schapiro would photograph the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963 and the Selma to Montgomery march in 1965. The lens of his Nikon Rangefinder captured the comradeship of the movement’s leaders and supporters and even the humanity belying serried ranks of police and troops sent out to stop them. Schapiro chronicled the movement to the rest of America and the wider world on the pages of Newsweek, Time, Life and Rolling Stone.

In 1968 Schapiro was pictured himself as the photographer accompanying Robert Kennedy during his fateful campaign to gain the Democratic nomination. The diminutive Schapiro is shown in the picture with multiple cameras with different sized lenses around his neck as he eagerly runs to his next vantage point, his mop of black hair becoming increasingly unruly.

‘There’s really no time to change lenses,” he said. “If you’re working in a situation that’s a very wide-angle scene, and there’s something happening in it, you don’t have time to change lens when you suddenly see that there’s a close-up moment or when you want to get a very tight shot of someone. So you really have to have that extra camera.”

Schapiro’s final commission for Life magazine before its closure in 1972 was to produce a photo-essay from the set of The Godfather. Quiet vigils were rewarded with iconic pictures of Marlon Brando in all his jowly menace as Don Corleone tickling the neck of a tabby cat and another of the Godfather raising a finger while an aide whispers into his ear. “Francis [Ford Coppola] really had to fight for Brando’s casting. Brando was considered difficult, but he was a total delight,” Schapiro said.

Having moved to Los Angeles and carved out a niche in Hollywood, Schapiro would go on to work on Chinatown, Taxi Driver, Nashville, Apocalypse Now and The King of Comedy.

Schapiro’s first two marriages ended in divorce. He is survived by his third wife, Maura Smith, a former film editor at the BBC whom he met on a blind date. She is now a film professor at Columbia College Chicago. He is also survived by their son Theophilus, a documentary photographer, and daughter Elle; and by a son and daughter from his first marriage: Adam, who lives in Israel, and Taylor, an artist and art teacher. Another son from his first marriage, Teddy, died in 2014.

Schapiro opened another avenue as a celebrity portrait photographer. He was commissioned to do a cover shoot of David Bowie for People magazine in 1974. Bowie was seven hours late but knew exactly what he wanted. “He immediately borrowed a cropped-neck shirt from one of my assistants and when he came back 20 minutes later he had painted white stripes on the shirt, his pants, and I think he had even painted his toes white. On the background paper on the floor he drew a diagram of the tree of life, a Kabbalah diagram. He was very, very serious. The interesting thing in terms of the stripes is that he only used an outfit like that one other time, which was in his last video (Lazarus).”

To Schapiro all his subjects could be heroes just for one day if he could only tease out that thing that made them unique. His award-winning anthology of pictures Schapiro’s Heroes is an intimate audience with Muhammad Ali, Andy Warhol, Ray Charles, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Samuel Beckett, Truman Capote and Barbra Streisand, looking at her reflection while taking a bath. Streisand called him “one of my favourite photographers”.

Schapiro returned to documentary work late in life and last year completed one of his final assignments photographing Black Lives Matter demonstrations, bringing back heady memories of the front line of the civil rights movement.

Steve Schapiro, photographer, was born on November 16, 1934. He died of pancreatic cancer on January 15, 2022, aged 87