Muhammad Ali playing Monopoly among historic images at Marylebone photography show

Civil Rights, Selma March (wide). Picture: Steve Schapiro

Civil Rights, Selma March (wide). Picture: Steve Schapiro - Credit: Archant

Tal Fox talks to an American photographer whose work in the 60s and 70s captured the social upheaval and cultural icons of the time including the civil rights protests, iconic movies and figures from sport and music as seen in an exhibition in a Marylebone gallery.

Muhammad Ali, Monopoly. Picture: Steve Schapiro

Muhammad Ali, Monopoly. Picture: Steve Schapiro - Credit: Archant

Steve Schapiro’s flair for capturing people at their most natural has created some of the most iconic images of the 20th century.

From key moments of the Civil Rights Movement to Robert Kennedy’s ill fated 1968 campaign trail, his back catalogue tells the story of 20th Century America in flux.

He even managed to catch Muhammad Ali playing a game of Monopoly.

“From 1963 to the death of Doctor King, I tended to do a lot of civil rights work,” says the 82-year-old who now lives in Chicago.

Bowie with Keaton Book. Picture: Steve Schapiro

Bowie with Keaton Book. Picture: Steve Schapiro - Credit: Archant

“I took a photograph of (Alabama) Governor George Wallace, he was standing in a doorway trying to prevent two black students from coming into a university building” he recalls.

“I worked with Dr King and his advisors and I remember on the Selma to Montgomery Marches in 1965 there were only 300 people allowed on the highway so it was really those 300 people who changed voting in America.

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“My image of these leaders, they’re all really into their own worlds and not looking into the camera the feel is really spontaneous. When you photograph civil rights you really don’t know what may happen in the next 5 minutes.”

Schapiro’s who finds black and white images “more emotional” than colour, also remembers a middle aged black woman carrying a “Stop police violence” sign and a young man with “vote” written across his forehead.

“The white on his forehead, and his eyes, really indicate what the movement was about.

“Rather than just being a picture of action it appeared to me to be rather symbolic.

“When you photograph civil rights you’re looking for the spirit of the event or the spirit of the person. I love to be a fly on the wall most of the time so I can just move around a shoot. I don’t really put my ego into things.”

Born in New York, Schapiro started taking photos from the age of nine but initially wanted to be a writer.

“When I was growing up I wanted to be the world’s greatest novelist so I wrote a book and it had four great pages and that’s it. So I decided I wouldn’t be the world’s greatest novelist.”

After knocking on the door of Life magazine each week in hope of getting an assignment, he embarked on his freelance career in 1961 working for Life, Vanity Fair, Sports Illustrated, Newsweek, Time, Paris Match among others.

“I looked extremely young and was very easy going,” he says of himself.

But after this golden age of photojournalism in the 1960’s, Schapiro turned to shooting actors working on film sets including now classic portraits of the likes of Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro in Midnight Cowboy, The Godfather, The Way We Were and Taxi Driver.

“Working with actors is really good in developing the innocence of the person.

“The actor is good at showing the interior and exterior of the person they’re portraying. When I’m shooting them as they are, they don’t know what image to show you, it’s easier (for them) to play a different role.”

Then in 1975 Shapiro received a rare invitation from David Bowie’s manager to attend a private photo shoot in LA.

“David came very quietly without an entourage. He borrowed a shirt from one of my assistants, 20 minutes later he came out and he had painted the white diagonal stripes on it himself and then proceeded to make drawings on the background of pictures which had spiritual meaning to him.

“He wore this outfit in the last thing he did before he knew he was dying. It was very emotional to me because it had that spiritual significance.”

Shapiro’s work has been exhibited internationally including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and at the Centre Pompidou in Paris.

His latest at the Atlas Gallery in Dorset Street, Marylebone ties in with a new book: Bowie: Photographs by Steve Schapiro which includes previously unseen images from the Bowie shoot and is published by PowerHouse Books.

Schaprio says of Bowie’s death earlier this year:

“He knew the photos were being released we started working on the book in the fall of last year. David wished me luck on the project and said he couldn’t wait for the book to come out in April.”

Heroes featuring more than 20 icons of film, politics, music, art and sport runs at the Atlas Gallery from June 9 until August 20.

Phone: 0207 224 4192