Photographer Steve Schapiro

The iconic photographer discusses his special contribution to the letterpress reprint of author James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time”.

Steve Schapiro discovered photography at the age of nine at summer camp. Excited by the camera’s potential, Schapiro spent the next decades prowling the streets of his native New York City trying to emulate the work of French photographer Henri Cartier Bresson, whom he greatly admired. His first formal education in photography came when he studied under the photojournalist W. Eugene Smith. Smith’s influence on Schapiro was far-reaching. He taught him the technical skills he need to succeed as a photographer, but also informed his personal outlook and world-view. Schapiro’s lifelong interest in social documentary, and his consistently empathetic portrayal of his subjects, is an outgrowth of his days spent with Smith and the development of a concerned humanistic approach to photography.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.

More than 50 years ago, James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time” stabbed at the heart of America’s so-called negro problem. Now Baldwin’s rich, raw, and everrelevant prose is reprinted in a letterpress edition with photographs from Steve Schapiro. Tonight the photographer known for iconic images from the civil rights movement joins us to discuss his contribution to this very special reprint.

Then actress Laura Dern is here to talk about David Lynch, Star Wars and much more.

We’re glad you’ve joined us. Conversations with Steve Schapiro and Laura Dern in just a moment.

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Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Tavis: If pictures are worth 1,000 words, then Steve Schapiro could fill the pages of several books. His latest project is a letterpress edition of James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time”. Mr. Schapiro, an honor, sir, to have you on this program.

Steve Schapiro: Oh, it’s my pleasure.

Tavis: Let me unpack this thing as it came in all this beautiful little packaging and all of this. But they sent this to me a few weeks ago and I’ve had a chance to go through it, and it is beautiful.

Schapiro: I think they did an incredible job and I think it has a lot of interesting elements. It is the text of James Baldwin’s “Fire Next Time”. It has an introduction by John Lewis. It has a piece written by Baldwin’s sister and it has about 120 of my civil rights photographs from 1963 through 1968.

Tavis: Tell me specifically — we could talk about your civil rights work for hours and hours and hours. Specifically, tell me about hanging out with James Baldwin.

Schapiro: James Baldwin was amazing. In 1962, I read The New Yorker piece he wrote which became part of “Fire Next Time”. I was just starting to freelance with Life and I asked them if I could do a photo essay with him.

And then through the month of January ’63, we traveled from Harlem, Durham, North Carolina, Mississippi, New Orleans, and it was an adventure. For me being a New Yorker who had no experience with the south, it was amazing. I was just amazed by his intellect. I was amazed by just his love.

There’s a picture in there in which he’s holding an abandoned child and just the feelings he had for people were so strong and also just his ability to talk with leaders and the importance he had behind the scenes was really important in terms of the whole movement.

Tavis: Because it’s my show, I get a chance to show you pictures that I like. So we’re going to pull out about six — I’ve identified about six of these I want to get you to tell me about in just a second.

Schapiro: Okay, terrific.

Tavis: Before I do that, though, tell me more about the experience this young white guy who had not been in the south, what’d you see? What’d you experience? How did you process all of it?

Schapiro: Well, Life got me a stringer who had gone to Ole Miss, so I came into Jackson, Mississippi and I had longish hair and I had a leather jacket. He took one look at me, pulled me into the barbershop, told them to give me a marine haircut. He then bought me a shirt with the alligator thing, white corduroy pants and a transistor radio case to put my camera in, and then he felt he could walk around with me [laugh].

Tavis: But he had to get you ready for that experience, huh?

Schapiro: Absolutely [laugh].

Tavis: That is hilarious. Here’s the first photo that I’ve picked out and they’ll put them on the screen. So I just want you to see it. Tell me about this photo.

Schapiro: I think it’s an important picture. This is 1965. This is a middle-aged woman. This is in Selma, Alabama, and it’s so, you know, important today in the same way as it was then. It just rings the same way and it still exists.

Tavis: Since you were there and, obviously, took the photo, what do you make of, to your point, the prescience, the prophetic nature, the real world that we still live in that makes that poster so relevant even today?

Schapiro: I think there are two things. One, at the time that picture was taken, every sheriff, every policeman, was against the movement and against Black voting or anything like that. Today, I think it’s a little different.

I think there are some police who have a sense of caring and I think there are a lot of people who go into that profession with a sense of inner violence and they use that violence, unfortunately.

Tavis: Here’s picture number two. Tell me about this.

Schapiro: I felt that Jimmy was a very lonely person at the time, particularly in 1963. I’ve always liked that picture. You know, “Do you love me?” And I thought it really had relevance to him. It just rang a bell for me in terms of how he was. He was an amazing person, but very lonely.

Tavis: Is he holding that record or the other guy’s holding the record?

Schapiro: He’s holding the record.

Tavis: So Baldwin’s holding the record…

Schapiro: Yes.

Tavis: And you just happened to catch it in that moment with those words on the record?

Schapiro: Totally candidly.

Tavis: “Do you love me?”. Wow. Tell me about this photo right here.

Schapiro: That’s Baldwin and his family with his sisters and their children. This was taken at his sister’s house. He was extremely fond of his family, very connected with his family. He just had a wonderful love of people in every way.

Tavis: He had a fascinating, interesting childhood, so when I saw that picture and saw so much love in that photo with his family, it was beautiful to see.

Schapiro: Yeah. Both he and John Lewis were early preachers at a very early age.

Tavis: Yeah. They were indeed. They both had their own witness. Tell me about this photo here.

Schapiro: We were in Durham, North Carolina and we just spent time walking around town. It just strikes a bell in terms of, you know, these kids running around a circle around the outhouse there. Jojo’s Kitchen has become an extremely popular photograph. Everyone somehow relates to Jojo’s Kitchen. I think it’s a strong picture and it really in some ways resonates in terms of the time.

Tavis: Why do you think everybody relates so much to this photo?

Schapiro: You tell me [laugh].

Tavis: I can tell you one thing I don’t relate to that I wish I did. Fish sandwiches for 25 cents, oyster sandwiches for 25 cents, French fries for 15 cents. Oh, Lord.

Schapiro: And hair…

Tavis: And hair.

Schapiro: Hairstyling.

Tavis: Hairstyling, yeah.

Schapiro: There you go [laugh].

Tavis: Only Black folk — get your chicken and your hair did in the same joint [laugh]. Oh, I love it. I guess we’ve discussed why everybody relates to it, then. Tell me about this photo right here.

Schapiro: This was a photo — we were in New Orleans and we passed this soda fountain store. And suddenly we saw this sign which says…

Tavis: Colored Entrance Only.

Schapiro: Colored Entrance Only, and we wanted to take a picture of it. And then we noticed that the proprietor was looking out the window at us. To me, a picture really resonates when there are other elements. I mean, you could do a portrait of Baldwin. You could do a portrait of Baldwin with the sign, but adding those three elements, it makes a much better picture.

Tavis: What did you learn — I’m going back to the beginning of this conversation when you’re young aide changed your hair and changed your outfit. What did you feel about the way that you were perceived — and particularly because you had a camera around your neck — how did you feel about the way you were perceived then?

Schapiro: I’m basically a fly on the wall and basically I’m very quiet and I take in what I see. The more I have the freedom to just move around, I can look for the sense of a person or the sense of an event and try to turn that into a picture which says something about that person or that event.

So basically I also went on a segregationist march in St. Augustine and I asked, well, I don’t have an ID. Life sent me there. I don’t have an ID. So just say you’re a member of the hunting party. And J.B. Stoner was there who, you know, had a very bad reputation in terms of segregation, to put it mildly. But it just is taking in and trying to document what our world is about and to see it just the way it is.

Tavis: What do you recall — let me move from your area of expertise in taking photographs to something more personal, if I may. What do you recall about your conversations with James Baldwin, just the two of you guys talking?

Schapiro: I think we just — you know, we spent time with Medgar Evers and Medgar Evers took a towel and put it over his license plate, which was just a joke in a sense that we knew we were followed. I think it’s just basically really listening to just the sense of this person who was unique in terms of both his intelligence and in terms of his feeling for other people. Such a strong feeling and such a strong warmth for other people, really that’s what impregnated me with our experience.

Tavis: I don’t normally say this. I’m only saying it because you’ll appreciate this. So it turns out that I have a staff photographer who takes pictures of my guests when we’re talking all the time. Before you leave the stage today, he’ll give you a couple of copies of photos he took while we were actually sitting here talking today.

Schapiro: Okay.

Tavis: His name — my staff photographer — his name is Van Evers. He’s the youngest child of Medgar Evers.

Schapiro: Oh, wow.

Tavis: So it’s kind of funny. He’s taking pictures of you right now while we’re sitting up…

Schapiro: Hi, Van [laugh]!

Tavis: Yeah [laugh]. While we’re sitting up here talking. You hanging out with his dad and now he’s taking photos of you.

Schapiro: I mean, Baldwin really introduced me to the whole civil rights world and to really the situation in the south. I was a New York boy and this was a whole new experience for me.

And through Baldwin, I started working with Jerome Smith who had been one of the original Freedom Riders who Jimmy introduced me to and to other people. And it really energized me to really want to show what was happening here from 1963 through 1968.

Tavis: What did you personally take away from that experience of covering so deeply and so intimately the civil rights era?

Schapiro: I’ve taken away the importance of nonviolence. I took away more values and the importance of more values and a reaction to people who did not have moral values and they should. It was a life experience in terms of humanity, really, that I got from him.

Tavis: How would you — I don’t want to say compare. That’s the wrong word, How would you situate — of all the things that you’ve covered over the years, how would you situate covering the civil rights movement amongst all the other projects and events that you’ve trained your lens on?

Schapiro: I would say it’s the most important in many ways. I traveled with Bobby Kennedy. I did his campaign posters. I’ve worked with a lot of people. I think this is like one of the most important things in terms of America and I see it that way today.

I saw it that way then, but again, when you start with something, I didn’t know that Martin Luther King when I first photographed him was going to be the Martin Luther King we know about.

You start off and you take a lot of pictures and you meet a lot of people, and you really don’t know the outcome of those pictures and of the meetings with those people. So you learn a lot and it’s been a life experience in learning.

Tavis: You have been an eye witness to history.

Schapiro: I’ve been very lucky, very, very lucky.

Tavis: The book is called “The Fire Next Time”, of Steve Schapiro. It is a book in words and pictures about the life and times of one James Baldwin. I highly recommend it. Mr. Schapiro, an honor, sir, to have you on this program.

Schapiro: Oh, it’s an honor to be on the program with you.

Tavis: Thank you, my friend. Up next, actress Laura Dern. Stay with us.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.

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Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: June 9, 2017 at 1:11 pm