Legendary Photographer Steve Schapiro on Capturing the Many Characters of David Bowie

"It was like working with a genius and bringing his ideas into the light of day."

In 1974, already an international style icon, sexual provocateur, and famous for his glam, androgynous alter ego Ziggy Stardust, David Bowie met with distinguished photographer Steve Schapiro in Los Angeles for a private photo session. The images, many almost never revealed until now, offer a rare glimpse of a musical icon’s collaborative and creative process.

Bowie, published by powerHouse Books, collects the fruits of that incredible first meeting that lasted from four in the afternoon until dawn. During their time together, Bowie went through dozens of costume changes, each revealing a new persona. Take note of of Schapiro’s photo of Bowie in blue slacks and a cropped shirt painted with diagonal white stripes, scribbling a diagram from the Kabbalah. The imagery showed up some 40 years later in the video for “Lazarus” on Bowie’s final album, Blackstar.

Flavorwire recently spoke with Schapiro about his legendary career and the Bowie photo shoot that would produce some of the most iconic album art and magazine images published that decade.

Flavorwire: Your mentor W. Eugene Smith helped form your activist viewpoint and further encouraged your interest in social documentary photography. During your career you captured the March on Washington and the Selma to Montgomery March. What are your memories of those massive historical events?

Steve Schapiro: They were very strong moments. It was an adventure trying to show something that was important to history and to America.

I did a lot of Civil Rights photography from 1963 all the way to when Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot. They had me fly to Memphis immediately. I first went to the rooming house where he had been in, where shots had been fired from the upstairs bathroom. The assailant had stood in the bathtub and leveled his gun on the window. I saw his handprint on the wall, which could only have been made by someone standing in the bathtub. I assumed it was the assailant. I photographed that, and Life magazine printed it full-page next week. Then I went to the hotel. Hosea Williams, who was one of King’s aids, let me in the room. King was, of course, no longer with us. I saw on a ledge King’s attaché case and the rumpled shirts around, and cups, styrofoam cups. His image came on the television set right behind the announcer. I did a picture of all of that. It became symbolic to me in the sense that the physical man was gone, his material things remained, but he still hovered above us in spirit.

I went back to Memphis 37 years later for the first time. They had taken the bathroom and moved it. They had taken the rooming house and made it into a museum with videos and things like that. The whole bathroom was there, except pushed out, and they put a plexiglass widow there so you could look in and see. But the wall on which the handprint was on was now just a blank wall. Then I went to the Lorraine Motel where King had stayed, and the wall which I had photographed everything on was no longer there. That was plexiglass. And it seemed to me that the two things that were most emotional for me in terms of what happened no longer existed.

It’s evident how inspired you were by the actors you photographed on now-famous film sets like Taxi Driver, Midnight Cowboy, and The Godfather. When shadowing a movie in the making, what do you look for?

It’s not really different photographing a historical event or something that’s in the real world from a movie set. You’re still looking for the same things — the spirit of the person or the event. You’re looking for an image, which can hopefully be iconic. You’re looking for something that’s special about the person or that reveals the person. The only difference between shooting a movie set and shooting in a real situation is that in a real situation you don’t know what may happen in the next five minutes, but on a movie set you have a good idea if you’ve read the script. But basically my attitude is the same.

You read the scripts for the movies you photographed ahead of time?

Usually I do. It’s important to be prepared and see the direction that it’s going in.

Tell me about capturing Marlon Brando and a cat on The Godfather set.

That’s an interesting story. We shot in a studio in New York. There was an old studio with a lot of stray cats around. Francis Ford Coppola really had a sense that Brando could improvise with anything. He suddenly threw the cat onto Brando’s lap thinking that Brando would figure out what to do with it. And he did. Actually the photograph I did was not in the movie. It’s a different moment entirely. But the cat, which was inadvertently thrown onto Brando’s lap, became symbolic to the movie and one of the iconic images of the film.

You also captured one of the world’s most famous artists. Did Andy Warhol live up to his reputation?

I started photographing him when he was relatively unknown and everyone was laughing at him, figuring he was just someone who was a joke in a way and trying to make art out of nothing. I started really photographing him in ’63. By ’66, when I finished the story, which actually never ran in Life, he was already being lionized, being an inventive and charismatic person.

Photographs by Steve Schapiro, from Bowie, published by powerHouse Books
Photographs by Steve Schapiro, from Bowie, published by powerHouse Books

 
Let’s talk about your new book. Were you a fan of Bowie’s music before his manager Michael Lippman asked you to photograph him for the first time in 1974?

Oh yeah, how could you not be?

What did you think of him before you met him?

I thought of him as a pop idol, in a way. When I met him it was a totally different image. He was basically very quiet, over-intelligent, and he didn’t come with a whole entourage or anything like that. He had very definite ideas of what to do. It was as if he was trying out new characters who potentially would work in some other way, either evolve with a song, movie, or something of that sort.

Photographs by Steve Schapiro, from Bowie, published by powerHouse Books David with goggles and bike. Los Angeles, 1974.
Photographs by Steve Schapiro, from Bowie, published by powerHouse Books
“David with goggles and bike.” Los Angeles, 1974.

 
In your book, you write that you’re often nervous when photographing someone for the first time — but Bowie was different. Still, how do you mentally prepare to photograph your subjects, given their iconic status?

I don’t usually mentally prepare. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I am nervous, because I don’t know exactly which direction we may be going in. It’s always a new experience, and everyone is always different. But you find if someone is very talented like Bowie, like many other people I’ve photographed, it becomes a collaboration, either said or unsaid. Sometimes it’s just an unconscious collaboration. You’re both working for the same thing. But you do meet a lot of actors who basically can form a character very well, but they don’t really know who they are. It’s very easy for them to appear as a person they’ve portrayed in a movie, but when you ask them to be themselves, they don’t know who that is. It happens a lot with actors.

You shadowed Samuel Beckett during the making of Film in 1964, his only screenplay. Buster Keaton starred in the movie, and it was one of his last roles. Bowie idolized Keaton, and you captured him with a book bearing Keaton’s image. Did Bowie speak with you about why he loved Keaton so much?

There’s a similarity between them. They were both very inventive people. Perhaps Buster Keaton was inventive in a different way. If Keaton was not a silent film star, he probably would have been a civil engineer, because he engineered all his stunts. He would work it out so a camera could be dropped, but it would stop right above the water. He really figured out the basics of how to do the shots he was in. Bowie also was an extremely inventive person who also had a sense of growth. A lot of groups are extremely successful and do things they love stay in the same genre, whereas Bowie seemed to keep moving into new areas.

Photographs by Steve Schapiro, from Bowie, published by powerHouse Books From the photo shoot for People Magazine. We took portraits against a putrid green background which we both felt was the worst possible color to use as a background for a magazine cover. Los Angeles, 1974
Photographs by Steve Schapiro, from Bowie, published by powerHouse Books
“From the photo shoot for People magazine. We took portraits against a putrid green background which we both felt was the worst possible color to use as a background for a magazine cover.” Los Angeles, 1974.

 
Your stories indicate that Bowie was very self-directed. And you were constantly snapping photos. Did you give him any direction or just let him explore through costume changes and different props?

Basically it was like working with a genius and bringing his ideas into the light of day. We did collaborate. We made that portrait on the putrid green cover. We both laughed about the fact that it was the worst possible color for a magazine cover.

With each costume change, you said, a new character emerged. Did he carry himself differently with each character? Did he speak differently? Was he in his own world?

I think he got concerned, created a character, and he became that person. Yes, the way he dressed determined his personality. His personality was much different in that red and white outfit as it is in some of the first pictures in the book. There’s degrees of seriousness and degrees of just kidding around. He was always trying to form an image.

Photographs by Steve Schapiro, from Bowie, published by powerHouse Books David seated drawing circles on the background paper and then the Kabbalah Tree of Life diagram on the floor. Los Angeles, 1974.
Photographs by Steve Schapiro, from Bowie, published by powerHouse Books
“David seated drawing circles on the background paper and then the Kabbalah Tree of Life diagram on the floor.” Los Angeles, 1974.

 
We see Bowie drawing lines and circles in some of the photos you captured during that in that first photo shoot — many images from the Kabbalah. Did he speak with you about spirituality?

We talked a lot about spirituality. We didn’t talk about the weather. We talked a lot about spirituality. That was a big concern of his at the time.

Was there anything memorable that he said about that to you?

I wouldn’t remember the exact words at this point or direction of it.

Photographs by Steve Schapiro, from Bowie, published by powerHouse Books David with cigarette on a break from filming MFE in New Mexico 1975. This became a Rolling Stone cover and a popular image
Photographs by Steve Schapiro, from Bowie, published by powerHouse Books
“David with cigarette on a break from filming MFE in New Mexico 1975. This became a Rolling Stone cover and a popular image.”

 
Did you know you were capturing an album cover when you shot the images for his Nothing Has Changed series, Station to Station, and Low? Did he pick the photos, or did someone else?

No. We were doing pictures that we thought were interesting, and we tried to make them as interesting as we could. But we had no idea of how they would be used. They keep popping up. Actually, Warner’s is going to do a box set in September of a period from ’74 to ’76. Apparently Bowie [and a second person] chose the cover picture, which is mine.

You write that Bowie didn’t seem to have much chemistry with Cher on her show during his appearance. What was the mood on set?

It was like performing, but it wasn’t an emotional relationship, fake relationship, or stage relationship. They seemed to perform, but I think in many ways they were into their own world. To my eye, I could well be wrong, they did not seem to connect. There didn’t seem to be enormous chemistry between them.

In the 1980s, you mention that Bowie asked you to go on tour. Did you end up going?

I couldn’t. He called me 15 minutes before my wife, our son, and I were going to Paris for a vacation. It was just too late. We literally were about to go to the plane. It was an incredible temptation. I would have loved, loved, loved to do it. But there was no way I could do that.

Photographs by Steve Schapiro, from Bowie, published by powerHouse Books David out of character. One of my favorite photos of David. I particularly like his hands in this shot. Los Angeles 1975
Photographs by Steve Schapiro, from Bowie, published by powerHouse Books
“David out of character. One of my favorite photos of David. I particularly like his hands in this shot.” Los Angeles 1975.

 
In the book you write, “Working with genius is exhilarating. Working with Bowie was unforgettable.” Are there common traits among these geniuses that you spent such intimate time with? What was it about Bowie that stood out above the others?

I think everyone is very unique. I find some people have a great sense of imagination and a sense of growth and sort of an exuberance, an exuberance about life and for finding new ways of expression. Bowie certainly always did that. Continually throughout his life, he found new ways of expression. I admire that. It impresses me. I worked with people like Bobby Kennedy who, in a different way, impressed me by just a sense of caring and his concern for human beings. We can go back to the Eugene Smith comment you started us on where there’s a humanitarian sense of someone, or a sense of caring for people and a sense of moving forward.

Is there anything about your work that you’d like to be remembered for most?

Who knows. I can only deal with now and projects I’m working on. I’m doing a book on Misericordia, which is a place in Chicago where people with developmental problems are a community. There are 600 people. Sister Rosemary started it in ’74 on the South side, and now it’s 35 acres in the Northern part of Chicago. It’s like bringing people together who probably spent time in a room not doing anything or staring at television and feeling that people were looking down on them. It’s a community where from the start of the morning until night are involved with activities, either work projects, because they have a bakery and package coffee for Trader Joe’s, or else athletics, computers, everything. It’s a wonderful place. I’m doing a book on that, which will come out later this year.

Photographs by Steve Schapiro, from Bowie, published by powerHouse Books David Bowie portrait, Los Angeles, 1975.
Photographs by Steve Schapiro, from Bowie, published by powerHouse Books
David Bowie portrait, Los Angeles, 1975.