Interview

with Steve Schapiro

"In the world of photography nothing is real. Above all, you cannot equate it with the truth."

The journalist Marcus Woeller interviews Steve Schapiro.

What was the idea behind your book Then and Now?

Actually, we just chose a couple of pictures that I’d made during the past fifty years. Some of them are from the sixties and other I took just last December. I looked for appealing photographs that had not yet been published. Then, of course, you also have to create a relationship among the pictures—a book needs to flow. And to do that you create interesting situations: here is a picture of Jane Fonda in her aerobic outfit working out, and on the other side are these two Sumo wrestlers on a street in Chicago.

You must have combed through thousands of photographs in your archives. Were you able to remain professional throughout, or was it more of a nostalgia trip into your own past?

A combination of both. For example, there’s this photo, Hollywood Wall and Car. My wife probably wouldn’t have included the picture in the book, but I like the atmosphere it radiates. The photo is very unspecific: it’s not about anything special, but it’s a cool image. With Romy Schneider, it was immediately obvious that she’d be in the book. You have to find high-quality images, but also pictures that you really like. Many photo books are missing something.

How do you achieve a good flow?

For instance, with a lot of surprises. You’re leafing through the book, and suddenly, unexpectedly, you see this picture of Marlon Brando . . .

. . . who’s suddenly staring at me like crazy.

Yes, it’s like being hit, but it’s effective! Other photos are more nostalgic, while I think others are important, such as the photographs of Andy Warhol, for example, which I really like.

You started working as a photographer in the 1960s, the golden age of photojournalism?

If you were working for one of the big magazines, it was definitely easier than it is today. Especially if you were working with celebrities, you were on the same level. Today you have to deal with a lot of PR people who don’t leave their clients’ side. That makes it very difficult to build up an emotional connection. It influences the way that you work and gives you less time for your work, too. There’s two or three hours at the most left. Before, when I photographed a lot for Life Magazine, you would have at least four days. Sometimes you’d work for six months on a story. During that time, of course, you’d get very close to people.

Luxurious circumstances . . .

. . . but also very productive. In Life Magazine in those days there were photo essays that were ten, twelve pages long. That made it possible to get an emotional flow in the story. Today, magazines tend to print only one photo instead of a series. And the main purpose of this photo is to provide information. But I’m far more interested in emotion and creativity. Information has absolute priority, but it doesn’t necessarily make for the best pictures, from a photographic point of view.

Do you still remember the first celebrity you were allowed to photograph?

That was probably the author Patrick Dennis, whose novel, Auntie Mame, was being filmed at the time. I went to his house, and in those days, it was fashionable for Life photographers to take pictures of people in the bathtub. So I made sure to have a bottle of bubble bath with me—and he did it! I also still remember my very first magazine cover. I thought I was going out of my mind when I saw my picture on every newspaper stand. That was an extremely emotional experience.

Who was on the cover?

Oh, I don’t remember exactly anymore, some athlete.

How do create a sense of closeness in order to get a good picture?

At first, forty percent of the work is taking care of the contact, and then the best thing to be is very casual and very quiet.

Quiet?

Yes. When you worked for Life , you were usually traveling with a reporter and had to be as quiet as a mouse. Unless you were visiting someone like Alec Guinness, who would instantly start chatting with you. But the best opportunities arise when you stay on the sidelines at first and wait for an emotional situation. For a revealing moment that gives you a feeling about who this person is. And then it’s always good not to come off as bombastic and start talking right away. It’s not about you! Instead, it’s about the search for an iconic image that contains a great sense for the person and the situation.

What do you do when you have to deal with very shy people?

Andy Warhol was extremely shy, even though he seemed to overcome it more strongly with every interview. For me, the most important thing is to get onto a wavelength. You want to be someone’s friend, and if you succeed at that, then everything is fine. Shyness also stands in the way of the photographer. As soon as you start thinking about the equipment and fumble around nervously with it, you distance yourself from the thing at hand. You can’t turn yourself into the theme. That’s why I work as seldom as possible with the flash. The flash immediately brings the photographer into play. I wanted to have it as authentic as possible, in order to convey the illusion that there is only the world of the person being photographed.

One of your pictures features a poster with the sentence, “What is real?” What is real in photography?

In the world of photography nothing is real. Above all, you cannot equate it with the truth. Photography is primarily the moment when the photographer presses the shutter release. If someone is happy, you’ll see that in the picture, just as you can see when someone is depressed. When the photo is published you still only get an idea of whether the person was really happy or depressed. The truth lies in the hands of the photographer and the editor. They decide what is true. And nevertheless, we look at photographs and believe that they reflect reality.

On a film set, too, nothing is as it appears to be. You’ve worked a lot on film shoots; how did that come about?

Somewhat coincidentally. My first film was Otto Preminger’s The Cardinal , from 1963. I was asked, because I had developed a certain reputation at Life magazine, and I could produce stories that were several pages long. That promised attention to film production companies.

Did you have enough freedom?

Perfect. Nobody ever told me what to do. On Francis Ford Coppola’s set there was just a studio photographer at first, but his pictures were nothing special, so most of the pictures of The Godfather that you’re familiar with today are mine: Marlon Brando with the cat; the consigliore whispering something into the Godfather’s ear; the wedding photos; Sonny’s execution.

Can people like Marlon Brando or Robert de Niro break character when the camera is turned off?

Filming The Godfather and Taxi Driver were two totally different experiences. With Coppola the whole family worked together; all of the actors liked each other very much, they brought their friends onto the set, even to the shoot in Sicily. When the camera was off, everyone immediately went back to being themselves; they were relaxed, goofed around, mooned each other. When I first walked into Brando’s room, he stuck his tongue out at me and on it was a little piece of paper with the words “fuck you” written on it. It was all a big joke. Not for Coppola, though, because the studio made it really hard for him. Taxi Driver was different. Robert de Niro actually spent a month driving a taxi in New York to prepare for the role. He embodied it inside and outside, even after the camera had long been shut off. So there was a kind of depressed atmosphere on set. The whole film had a completely different mood.

Have you accompanied any actors over a longer period of time?

I’ve photographed De Niro six or seven times, and I’ve made many films with Barbra Streisand and Jane Fonda. But generally the actors determine who’s going to work with them. If they’ve attained a certain degree of fame, then they can dictate who they want to work with. And of course they look for photographers who make them feel comfortable, and who, they already know, will produce good photographs. Someone they know won’t disturb the filming or suddenly walk into the sightlines.

Do you prefer to stage things, or wait for the perfect moment?

That depends. Generally, there are two kinds of pictures. Either the kind in which someone is posing in a certain way, because you’re pursuing a particular idea, or there are situations that happen by accident. For instance, the Ethiopian Boys , who are very obviously looking directly at me. I didn’t pose them, but they were giving me a special, interesting look. The picture of Jodie Foster, when she was fourteen or fifteen, is definitely staged, but the way that she looks is simply beautiful. So you always try to find a special look from a person, or the spirit of an encounter.

In an interview with Matthias Harder you confess that you have not yet taken your greatest picture. What kind of a photograph might that be?

You tell me! I don’t know. Even though I feel that I’ve shot a lot of good pictures, I still haven’t stopped believing that I can always do something better. So I look toward the future very hopefully. In the last few months I’ve been working with my son on a project about the theme of bliss. We went to a lot of music festivals together, trying to find out what is actually left of the hippie movement, and we ran into a new generation that bases life on meditation, organic food, and, naturally, music of its own. We spent weeks sleeping in a tent or the car, in order to meet these people.

A new approach?

I don’t believe that you always need a new approach. Everyone looks at the world from his own perspective. When I was working at the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in the summer of 1965, there were three of us photographers who were taking pictures of the same event at the same time. And yet all of these pictures were very, very different. Precisely because we had three different standpoints or perspectives. What was important was what kind of feeling they had when they were there, and what they identified with. That’s what it’s about in reality.

In the meantime, conditions have radically changed for photojournalists. What do you miss?

That there’s hardly any more black-and-white photography. Because anyone today taking digital photographs thinks automatically in color. It was different before. Just look at my picture of Muhammad Ali and his later wife, Lonnie. At the moment when they first meet their eyes seem almost locked together; their emotion is embedded in the picture. If I had worked in color, then I might have been distracted by a yellow jacket, or a different person suddenly showing up. The photographer’s eyes wander automatically over to the color and lose the emotion from the gaze, which depends on black-and-white.

So do you prefer to work in black-and-white?

During the nineteen-sixties, of course, I mainly worked in black-and-white. I learned color photography during an assignment for Look magazine, when I was doing something on Candice Bergen. I experimented for that with a lot of filters, and found out by coincidence that I could get much more intense color with what is actually the wrong filter. So my cover photo literally blew away all of the other titles on the newsstand. Today I usually photograph in color and have trained myself to look at things differently. But I always come back to black-and-white . . .

. . . even though we all see in color.

I’ll try to illustrate it for you. Two years ago I was at a farm in Massachusetts. It was fall, and the leaves glowed in all of these splendid hues. I took a picture of a beautiful tree. It looked like an eighteenth-century painting, encrusted with shades of color. If you turn this into a black-and-white photo, it loses everything. You wouldn’t even look at it!

One point for color photography . . .

. . . wait a minute! Once I was in Annecy in France. On the bridge there was a market. The vendor had all kinds of fruit in his car, and in the background there was an old canal, with historical buildings, so it was an incredibly beautiful scene. I took some digital photographs, and when I looked at the pictures, I suddenly noticed two turquoise-green balls lying on top of a basket of fruit. The eyes go straight to these turquoise-colored troublemakers. The gaze stops and you don’t get into the actual image in front of you. So I made it in black-and-white—and it took on the appearance of the image that I saw when I was taking the picture.

A tie!

Black-and-white and color are two completely different worlds. You always have to readjust in order to see through a picture, and you have to think differently, because it’s a totally different kind of seeing. But that’s just the nature of communication—you always have to keep adjusting and readjusting.

October 16, 2012

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