Steve Schapiro, a photojournalist and social documentarian who bore witness to some of the nation’s most significant political and cultural moments and movements, starting in the 1960s with the historic struggle for racial equality across the Jim Crow South, died Jan. 15 at his home in Chicago. He was 87.
The cause was pancreatic cancer, his wife, Maura Smith, said.
Over a six-decade career, Mr. Schapiro trained his camera’s eye on an astonishing array of people across the American landscape as he sought to capture the emotional heart of his subjects, whether they were narcotics users in Harlem, migrant workers in Arkansas, or movie luminaries in Hollywood.
“I enjoy waiting for that moment when I sense something about someone,” Mr. Schapiro said in a 2017 interview with David Fahey, a friend and owner of the Fahey/Klein Gallery in Los Angeles.
As a freelance photographer in the 1960s for Life and Look, the oversized magazines that brought photojournalism into American homes, Mr. Schapiro documented the struggle for civil rights. When those magazines folded in the early 1970s or scaled back, he moved to Los Angeles and made his living by producing promotional material for movies, album covers, and portraits of celebrities.
All the while, he remained a social justice activist, documentarian, and cultural historian and in his 80s was taking pictures of the Black Lives Matter movement. He last photographed a demonstration, against the death penalty, a year ago in Terre Haute, Ind.
On the cultural front, he found his way in 1961 to the Village Vanguard in Greenwich Village, where his camera captured a fabled live performance by jazz pianist Bill Evans. He made arresting images of Barbra Streisand, including one where she is soaking in a bathtub, her cigarette holder in silhouette (“one of my favorite photographers,” Streisand wrote on Twitter after his death). He caught Andy Warhol being dazzled by charismatic actress Edie Sedgwick. And he shot the cover for the debut issue of People magazine in 1974 — a portrait of Mia Farrow in her role as Daisy Buchanan in “The Great Gatsby.”
Always self-effacing, he maintained that the many striking images he had made of David Bowie had sprung from the singer’s imagination. As Mr. Schapiro told The Chicago Tribune, “I was merely the conduit from genius into the light of day.”
At 5-3, Mr. Schapiro often succeeded in his goal of disappearing, of becoming “a fly on the wall” and waiting for something to unfold in front of him.
Fahey described Mr. Schapiro as “a spiritual person, empathetic and giving,” adding, “His primary motivation was to help the world be a better place.”
A photo essay in 1961 exposed the primitive conditions for migrant workers in Arkansas. First published in Jubilee, a Catholic magazine, then republished by The New York Times Magazine, his work led to the installation of electricity in the workers’ camps.
After reading a 1962 New Yorker essay by James Baldwin about the Black experience, Mr. Schapiro traveled with Baldwin on his 1963 tour of the South. Among the many pictures he took was one of Baldwin holding a record album by the Contours called “Do You Love Me (Now That I Can Dance),” an image that Schapiro said always made him feel Baldwin’s loneliness. Subsequent editions of Baldwin’s classic “The Fire Next Time” (1963) were illustrated with more than 100 of Mr. Schapiro’s images from their journey together.
On that tour, Mr. Schapiro crossed paths with and photographed a young John Lewis, then chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; Mr. Schapiro said later that the portrait showed “someone who knows who he is.” When Lewis died in 2020, Mr. Schapiro’s portrait of him appeared on the cover of Time and is scheduled to become a postage stamp, Mr. Schapiro’s wife said. It will not be his first stamp; his 1980 portrait of Paul Newman became one in 2015.
Mr. Schapiro also encountered Martin Luther King Jr. and photographed him often, including on the 1965 voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, with the crowds swelling along the route.
“He was important to the movement,” Ava DuVernay, the filmmaker, wrote on Twitter after Mr. Schapiro’s death. “His images moved minds during a crucial time.”
After King’s assassination, Mr. Schapiro immediately flew to Memphis. He went first to the rooming house from which James Earl Ray had fired the fatal shots at King, and he managed to get pictures of Ray’s handprint on a bathroom wall. Mr. Schapiro was then granted access to King’s empty room at the Lorraine Motel and photographed the artifacts — an open briefcase, used coffee cups — of a life suddenly cut short.
“It was not a picture that Life ran,” Mr. Schapiro told The Chicago Sun-Times in 2020. “But it became an important picture to me.”
Stephen Albert Schapiro was born during the Great Depression, on Nov. 16, 1934, in Brooklyn and grew up in the Bronx. His father, David, owned a stationery store in Rockefeller Center, where his mother, Esther (Sperling), also worked.
Mr. Schapiro attended Amherst College. After a year, he transferred to Bard College in upstate New York, which he found more suitable for free spirits like himself. He majored in literature and graduated in 1953.
He had discovered photography at summer camp at the age of 9 and as he grew up, he continued taking pictures. Enamored of Henri Cartier Bresson, the French photographer, he sought to emulate his style as he roamed the streets of New York.
“He had a great sense of design in his photographs, and at the same time gave you some information about the situation he was capturing,” Mr. Schapiro said of Bresson. “But most of all, he hit an emotional, sometimes extremely symbolic moment regarding his subject — even if he was just capturing Henri Matisse in his studio.”
Mr. Schapiro then studied more formally with W. Eugene Smith, a photojournalist renowned for portraying social conditions of the mid-20th century. Mr. Schapiro even embedded with Smith for a time in his Manhattan loft. He learned how to make prints and picked up some tricks of the trade, like showing two points of interest in a portrait, which Smith told him would make the viewer’s eye go back and forth and thereby hold the viewer’s attention.
Above all, Mr. Schapiro said in a 2019 interview with photo.com, Smith “gave me a sense of humanity and the human condition.”
Mr. Schapiro was married three times. His first two marriages ended in divorce.
In addition to his wife, Maura Smith, he leaves two sons, Theophilus Donoghue and Adam Schapiro; two daughters, Elle Harvey and Taylor Schapiro; and four grandchildren. Another son, Teddy Schapiro, died in 2016.
Mr. Schapiro believed that his civil rights images stood out because so few photographers were covering the movement. But he said the power of photography had been diminished in recent years because of its ubiquity.
“I think we are on the way to a day when cameras as we have known them will be obsolete,” he told The Chicago Tribune in 2016. “We will be using just cellphones to take photos as the technology advances and the quality gets better.”
But, he added, “I will ever believe that it is the photographer who counts, not the camera.”