An Icon with a Nikon

Few photographers can boast a portfolio of iconic subjects including the likes of Martin Luther King Jr., Muhammad Ali, Robert Kennedy, Robert De Niro and Johnny Depp.

But lifelong Nikon user, Steve Schapiro, isn’t just any photographer. He’s been rubbing shoulders with some of the biggest political and cultural figures on the planet and working with them to capture their natural charisma on camera for many years now. The bloggers on the French Nikon Hub site were lucky enough to catch up with the photographer at Cannes Film Festival. He’s a fascinating guy so we thought we’d share this with you! Although the original interview was in French, we have the English version for you below…

Martin Luther King Jr
Image © Steve Schapiro

What made you want to become a photographer?

I have enjoyed taking photographs since I was ten years old at summer camp. Growing up as a teenage budding photographer, the biggest aspiration you could have was to become a Life Magazine photographer. I broke into magazine journalism  by doing my own self assigned essays, spending four weeks in Arkansas at a migrant worker camp and doing a story on narcotics addiction in East Harlem, until finally Life Magazine gave me that first break to do a story for them. That worked out and my start as a professional began.

Why the change from Social photography to Movie photography?

In the 1960’s I worked steadily for Life and other magazines and had covers on magazines like Time, Newsweek, Sports Illustrated, Paris Match and most  magazines of the world.

The 60’s has been called ‘The Golden Age of Journalism’. If you had a good idea for a story, you could usually find some magazine that would assign you to do it.  I followed Bobby Kennedy’s Presidential bid and did his campaign posters. Life assigned me to photograph Martin Luther King Jr and the Selma March. I did long essays on James Baldwin, Muhammad Ali, Andy Warhol, Haight Ashbury, ‘counter culture’ protests, and everything from poodles to Presidents.

Robert Kennedy
Image © Steve Schapiro

But in the 70’s these magazines began to disappear. Television had come into play, taking the advertising revenue away from magazines. I saw the country was going gaga for celebrities and entertainment personalities. While I had been based in New York, I started spending more time in Los Angeles.

I was a true workaholic. I worked on all three Godfather movies, Taxi Driver and Chinatown. I did the logo for Midnight Cowboy. One night, I had an all night session with David Bowie, which ended at four in the morning shooting him outdoors on a bike using the illumination from a car’s headlights.

What is specific to movie-related photography?

There is not a great difference in how you take documentary and social photographs in the outside world and how you work on a film. For me, your mindset is the same. You are looking for moments that tell a story and reveal something unique about your subject. You are looking for those ‘pluses’ which will make your photograph above the ordinary.  Usually I try to be very quiet in both situations, ‘a fly on the wall’. The less your subject is aware of you the more they will be themselves. The other difference in photographing these two worlds is that on a movie set, if you have read the script, you have a good idea of what will happen next, while in the real world you never know that.

Taschen has published a book of my photographs from “Taxi Driver” and allowed the sequence of photographs to flow, uninterrupted by text or captions. The book while conveying the highly dramatic strong emotions of the film is really a parallel photo essay on a slightly different track slightly reminiscent of the photo essays in Life Magazine which I grew up with.

What was your first impression of Robert De Niro? How is working with him any different (if it is) than other people?

Robert De Niro is an amazing actor because he takes great pains to totally become the character he portrays, both internally and externally.  Preparing for Taxi Driver, he drove a cab in the city at night for a month to fully understand the character he was playing. While many actors fall in and out of character and when the director calls cut, revert to their basic normal persona, De Niro tends to maintain the intensity of his character on or off the set.

His characters reflect a greater quality of spontaneity and the unexpected. If I as a photographer am looking for the ‘pluses’ in a photograph, he certainly gives them to me.

Robert De Niro
Image © Steve Schapiro

As a photographer, how do you perceive the charisma of such an actor?

I have worked on about six films with Bobby, two with Scorsese. Each time we meet I am struck by the little smile he throws at you, coming as much from his eyes as his lips. He always seems initially shy. But I have learnt that with great actors, there are these pent up internal emotions which when triggered can explode.

Steve Schapiro
Photograph of Steve Schapiro / Image © Steve Schapiro

Keep checking the blog for the second part of this interview with Steve, which we’ll post next week. In the meantime, let us know what you look for in your subjects. Why not take on board Steve’s comments about looking for those extra elements that make your pictures stand out and share the results on our Flickr page.

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