Witness to history

Steve Shapiro’s iconic photographs on display at WBR Museum

There was no police tape, no officers blocking onlookers from the crime scene.

It was a different time, a time before DNA tests and digital technology. A time when veteran Chicago photojournalist and author Steve Schapiro could show up with his film-loaded camera in hand and no one would question his presence.

Martin Luther King’s associate Hosea Williams simply let him into room 306, where the television was still blaring and cold coffee was stagnant in plastic foam cups. King had stepped out on the balcony for a moment. But, as history now dictates, a moment can be an eternity.

Maybe King meant to drink that coffee upon returning to the motel room. Maybe he’d meant to have the dirty shirts cleaned.

Maybe, but none of it mattered anymore.

“Dr. King was gone,” Schapiro said. “I had a sense that these were his material things, and his spirit was hovering over us. But he was gone.”

So, Schapiro snapped the picture. He was the only photographer who captured it.

The scene now hangs on West Baton Rouge Museum’s gallery wall in the traveling exhibit, Heroes: Photographs by Steve Schapiro. The show runs through Sunday, June 9, and there are no local artifacts accompanying the images. The museum is known for adding local flavor to traveling exhibits, telling a coinciding story of what was happening at home as history played out on the national stage.

“But this time we wanted the focus to be only on the photographs,” Julie Rose, museum director, said.

Rose stood in the main gallery next to curator Lauren Davis, who installed Schapiro’s photos. In the center are benches surrounding a table full of books filled with Schapiro’s photos. And as big and thick as these books are, they represent only some of Schapiro’s work.

Hatje Cantz publishers released his recent book, Steve Schapiro: Then and Now, in November 2012.

“And my son and I are working on a new book about today’s hippie culture,” Schapiro said.

He spoke from his office in Chicago, a city he described as “easy.” Easy in which to get around, easy in which to live, easy to enjoy.

“It’s a great city,” he said.

But it’s not in his home city where he and his son sought modern-day hippies.

“We went to music festivals in Oregon and North Carolina,” he said. “I covered Haight-Ashbury in 1967. It was an era where drugs were prevalent. The movement today is into the spiritual, organic food and music.”

Schapiro never stops working. He’ll celebrate his 80th birthday in 2014, and it would almost be an injustice to say that his camera has captured lots of history along the way. No, he’s seen more. Much more.

Schapiro doesn’t shy away from calling himself lucky.

“Oh, I am so lucky,” he said.

He let out a short laugh. It may very well be luck that has placed him in the right places at the right times in American history.

Just as it placed him in the room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn., on April 4, 1968, only hours after James Earl Ray aimed his gun through a bathroom window to bring down one of America’s greatest — if not the greatest — civil rights leaders.

Schapiro was working for Life magazine at the time. He’d come to know King through various assignments, including photographing the 1965 civil rights march in Selma, Ala.

“When he came here, he explained this photo,” Rose said.

She spoke of Schapiro’s lecture at the museum in April, where he shared personal stories behind his photographs.

Rose pointed to Schapiro’s photo of King walking in a front line of marchers. King wears a suit and tie, as do all the men marching on either side of him.

“Steve Schapiro explained that all of the men wore suits to make it more difficult to pick out Dr. King on the front line,” Rose said. “They knew there was a chance that someone might want to kill Dr. King.”

Eerie how this photo hangs near the one documenting room 306. Could the photo of King and the suited men be a foreshadowing of what was to be?

Schapiro didn’t have time to think about it at the time. He was in New York when he received a call from Life magazine.

“They told me to get on a plane for Memphis,” he said.

He arrived at the Lorraine Motel within hours of the assassination.

King had traveled to Memphis earlier in the year to support striking black sanitation workers, whose wages were lower than their white counterparts. King returned to the city on April 3 for an appearance at the Mason Temple, where he delivered his final speech, now known as “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.”

Then, at 6:01 p.m. on April 4, King was struck by a bullet while standing on the balcony outside of room 306. The shot was fired from a Remington 760 aimed through a bathroom window in a boarding house across the street.

That was Schapiro’s first stop in Memphis.

“I didn’t go to the motel first,” he said. “I went into the boarding house. I was told the assassin was standing in the bathroom, and he braced his gun in the bathroom window. I went upstairs and into the bathroom, and I saw a dirty handprint on the wall.”

The handprint clearly was Ray’s. He had to stand in the bathtub to aim his gun, which required him to place his hand on the wall as a brace. The handprint was fresh, and Schapiro snapped the photo.

“It appeared in Life magazine the following week,” Schapiro said.

As did the photo of King’s room.

“The dirty shirts were there and the Styrofoam cups,” Schapiro said. “And the TV was still on, and there was a report about Dr. King’s death with his image behind the newscaster’s. And that told the story.”

These days, though, Schapiro wouldn’t be able to get near such a scene. But, as he explained earlier, things were different back then. Much different.

Schapiro was able to form bonds that might not be so easy today.

As visitors can see, the King photos are only a small segment of the West Baton Rouge Museum’s exhibit. And that exhibit represents only a slice of Schapiro’s career, which includes classic portraits of actors, politicians and musicians from the 1960s and ’70s.

“I’ve worked for all the magazines, Life, Look, Newsweek, Time, Rolling Stone, Esquire, Sports Illustrated,” Schapiro said.

That’s just naming a few.

He’s also worked as a set photographer on more than 200 Hollywood movies, and as explained in the biographical information for his book, Steve Schapiro: Then and Now, “he has designed several iconic film posters, most notably for Midnight Cowboy, Taxi Driver and The Godfather Part III, and as a documentary photographer, he recorded the political tumult of the 1960s and 1970s, in photo essays on narcotics addiction, civil rights protests and presidential campaigns.”

“In fact, I’ve worked on all three of The Godfather movie sets, and I shot all of the iconic photographs that are used for those movies,” he said.

Iconic is the key word here. Schapiro doesn’t necessarily apply the word to his photos but to the photos’ subjects.

It’s why the exhibit is titled Heroes.

Now, it’s true that everyone’s heroes are different. But heroes, in this sense, refers to something different, something about staying power.

For the main subjects in this show — Muhammad Ali, Barbra Streisand, Ray Charles, Truman Capote, James Baldwin, Robert F. Kennedy, Andy Warhol, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and, yes, Martin Luther King Jr. — all are still talked about today.

Now, that doesn’t seem unusual in the case of King and Kennedy. But it’s somehow intriguing when looking at the other subjects.

For they were interesting when Schapiro photographed them in the 1960s and ’70s, but who would have thought they would have been just as strong today?

Sure, some of them have since died, but their presence is still strong. You see them in books, magazines. Movies are even made about them.

“And it’s so amazing,” Schapiro said. “Who would have thought back then that these people would still be talked about today? There’s still so much interest in what they did and are still doing.”

And Schapiro was there at the beginning to document it all, in his own way.

Take Ali, for instance. He was 21-year-old Cassius Clay in these photographs. He laughs with his mother, shows off his muscles and plays Monopoly.

These were the moments Schapiro sought to capture, the times that showed who Ali really was. And who was he?

“He was quiet at home,” Schapiro said. “But when he got out into public, he spoke out. But at home, he loved to play with the kids in the neighborhood. He rode bikes with them.”

One of those children was 6-year-old Yolanda Williams who would later grow up and marry Ali. She later recognized herself in one of Schapiro’s photos and called Schapiro to tell him her story. She had pigtails at the time. That photo appears in Steve Schapiro: Then and Now.

Going back to the young Ali, Monopoly was his favorite game, and Ali challenged Schapiro to a few games.

“He didn’t want me to lose,” Schapiro said, laughing.

And it wasn’t because Ali was being generous.

“He didn’t want the banks to get my property, so he kept loaning me money,” Schapiro said. “And in the end, he owned all of my property.”

As for Capote, Schapiro photographed the author for Life magazine on the film set of In Cold Blood, based on what is considered Capote’s nonfiction masterpiece. The film was shot on location in Holcomb, Kan., where the brutal murders of Herbert Clutter and his family took place in 1959. Schapiro photographed Capote in the bedroom of the farm house where the Clutters’ daughter was slain by Richard Hickock and Perry Edward Smith.

Author Harper Lee accompanied Capote on the trip. She was Capote’s childhood friend, and it’s said he was her model for the character, Dill, in her classic novel, To Kill A Mocking Bird.

Lee is included in one of the exhibit photographs.

Schapiro remembers Capote eagerly giving house tours to visitors.

“The people here had parties for him, and he loved going to those,” Schapiro said. “He was used to being entertained by older, wealthy women who idolized him.”

Photos of Capote segue into those depicting author and novelist Baldwin. Schapiro took these photos, some of them in New Orleans, for Life magazine in 1963.

“He pointed out this one as one of the most poignant photos,” Rose said, pointing to a print of Baldwin standing in front of an ice cream parlor.

The photo clearly was taken in the South. There is a “colored entrance” sign above the door, and the white owner peeks out through the blinds. And there stands a well-dressed Baldwin in front of the entrance.

“He said this photo says so much on so many different levels,” Rose said. “And he’s right. That was what was happening then, but it also showed what was to come.”

Part of this was ushered in by events depicted in the next phase of photos, those of Robert F. Kennedy taken while he was running for the U.S. Senate in 1954. Schapiro documented this successful campaign and continued photographing Kennedy and his family though Kennedy’s presidential run.

Schapiro even photographed Kennedy’s last Christmas with his family before his assassination on June 6, 1968. Kennedy’s 11th child, Rory Kennedy, had yet to be born.

“Yes, I would call myself lucky,” Schapiro said.

And his viewers are lucky, too, because Schapiro was in the right places at the right times. And he was capturing the history that others didn’t.