Interview: Steve Schapiro

The photographer who's snapped the world’s most famous faces

By Melanie Abrams, February 18, 2009
Schapiro: gained subjects’ trust

Schapiro: gained subjects’ trust

There aren’t many legendary celebrities that Steve Schapiro has not photographed. In a career spanning more than 50 years, he has captured Robert Kennedy on his presidential campaign and at home with his family, Andy Warhol in his factory, as well as Barbra Streisand on numerous album covers and in concert. He has also photographed many iconic movies, such as The Godfather and Taxi Driver, capturing the action in front of the movie camera and behind it as the actors rehearse or relax between takes.

From 25 February, Schapiro’s work from the three Godfather films will be shown at the Hamiltons Gallery. It features some of the best known and lesser known images from the films, from Don Corleone (Marlon Brando) listening to his capo whispering in his ear, to Don Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) dying.

Schapiro explains: “I’m very quiet and don’t interrupt. And I’m not being best buddies with them. If you don’t make a fuss and are relaxed, you create a positive vibe so they like being around you and the shoot works out.”

Schapiro’s extraordinary access has been the hallmark of his career, which began with incisive documentary work on migrant workers in Arkansas and narcotics addicts in East Harlem.

Born in Brooklyn, 1934, into a Jewish family, Schapiro started taking photos at the age of 10 at summer camp and by his teens he was shooting in the streets of New York.

Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver

Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver

His documentary work earned him assignments from magazines such as Life, for which he shot Martin Luther King Jr on the civil rights marches and his abandoned motel room within hours of his assassination.

Schapiro’s ability to get unlimited access has also provided some of photography’s most intimate and revealing images, such as Muhammad Ali at home in Kentucky.

He recalls: “Ali was such a great guy in every way. We were at his parents’ house and he was very relaxed. The neighbourhood kids played with him and he loved to play Monopoly, which he walked around town with under his arm.”

Gaining the trust of subjects is vital. Schapiro says: “The narcotic addicts in East Harlem accepted me because they trusted me. Everyone likes to be photographed but they are terrified that you won’t make them look good. But I gained their trust that I wouldn’t hurt them.”

His ability to empathise also helps. “If you’re on people’s wavelength and care about them, they are very responsive. Forty per cent is getting along with people and looking after their best interests. The other 60 per cent is design, information and emotion. If you can combine all of them and can capture the moment, that makes a great picture.” This empathy has also helped him develop friendships with stars such as Barbra Streisand and Jane Fonda, whom he has shot for films including The China Syndrome, her workout books and at home. He says: “Actors and actresses wrestle with who they are with because they are used to playing different roles. So if they are comfortable and familiar with you, they want to work with you again and again because they can relax.”

On Streisand, he says: “Barbra has a strong sense of herself, knows what is good for her and holds to it — this is part of her success.”

For Schapiro, it is important to convey the essence of the person. “I try and get the unique quality of people and convey what we love about them and what’s appealing about them as well as capture the moment which pulls it all together,” he says.

For example, he caught the kooky quality of Goldie Hawn for her first semi-serious film role and the mystique of Jackie Kennedy, lost in thought at Washington Airport. Sometimes, Schapiro collaborates with his subjects to create the most interesting shot. “While shooting the poster for Parenthood, it was Steve Martin’s idea to hold the two kids upside down,” he says.

According to Schapiro, some actors, like Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, do not like to be photographed — but put up with it. “DeNiro is easy on screen, but off screen he is shy and embarrassed when photographed and always had a goofy smile,” he says.

Describing the shoot for the Godfather III poster, Schapiro recalls: “Al has a lot of quick energy so the moment he saw the strobe lighting go on, he got up to leave before I could take the shot because he was ready to do something else as soon as a flash went off.”

His favourite subject was John Candy, the Canadian comedian who starred in The Blues Brothers, Home Alone and Uncle Buck.

“John was delightful and wonderful, always exuding charm and as funny off screen as he was on it,” he says.

There is one famous face that Schapiro has not photographed — President Barack Obama. He says: “When I photographed Bobby Kennedy, there weren’t that many photographers around, so pictures were rare. Obama has been photographed by so many people so to indicate who he is would be difficult — and therefore less interesting to do.”

Steve Schapiro: The Godfather is at Hamiltons Gallery, 13 Carlos Place, W1 (020 7499 9493) from February 25 to March 28

Last updated: 2:59pm, August 28 2014