By ALBIN WANTIER
While working with Bowie, I just had to be an observer.
It has been almost a year since my first contact with Steve Schapiro. In January last, a couple of days after Bowie’s passing, I wrote a long article on my blog (https://www.davidbowieblackstar.it/kabbalah-nuclear-fusion-and-immortality-david-bowies-signs/), focusing on the obvious links between the Lazarus video and a photo session Bowie and Schapiro did together in 1975, prior to the release of Station To Station. I had sent my article to Steve, asking if he would agree to do an interview in order to write another article on his work with Bowie. Frankly, I wasn’t expecting any answers. I thought it would just be another bottle in the sea. The good surprise is that not only Steve immediately answered but also his editor asked me if I would cooperate on a book about Bowie they had been working on for months. We have been in touch for quite a long time, doing some research all together. The book (http://www.powerhousebooks.com/books/david-bowie-2/) was finally released in April. The text here below is the script of an interview I did with Steve after the release of his book about Bowie, in April. We called each other and kept chatting on the phone for almost an hour. What still strikes me when I listen to the recording of the interview is Steve’s kindness. The first 10 minutes of the recording is just Steve asking me how Brussels is recovering from the terrorist attacks that left 36 dead people on March 22nd. I guess it shows what makes great photographers: they care about the others.
Last June I met Steve in London. We spent a lot of time chatting with him, his wife and my girlfriend. It happened a few days after Muhammad Ali’s passing. He had incredible stories to tell about Ali and the photos they had done together. We also talked about Andy Warhol, The Velvet Underground, Robert De Niro. These are stories I will keep to myself. I let you enjoy the parts concerning Bowie.
AW: How did you and David Bowie meet?
SS: Michael Lippman, who was Bowie’s manager and who I had been working with before, called me and asked if I’d be interested in doing a shoot for Bowie. Before he finished his question I had already said yes, of course.
AW: Do you know why he proposed it to you?
SS: It was mainly the manager’s choice. I don’t think David even knew who I was. I had a lot of things published prior to that but I hadn’t done a lot of rock’n’roll stuff. The manager must have thought that we’d get along very well and it worked. I used to work very quietly and probably Michael Lippman thought it would be a very relaxed session, which it was. Basically I think he was confident that the collaboration would work out well. Looking at it now, I think it turned out better than well. It certainly lasted much longer than anyone would have had anticipated, in terms of the first session, from 4 o’clock in the afternoon until 4.00 in the morning.
AW: Did Bowie or Lippman brief you precisely prior to the session?
No, not much. When I was working on films, I used to read the scripts to prepare it. But I didn’t prepare anything prior to the session with Bowie. Of course I already knew a lot of stuff about him. Basically, when I walk into a photo session, I don’t have any special concept in mind. Usually I don’t know what I’m going to find or in which direction the session will be going. My ideal session is when I’m a fly on the wall and I just come into a situation and watch what’s happening. It was of course a situation where we had to set up a background paper in the studio. We made preparations in the morning for the shoot in terms of setting up lights and things like that. But I had no anticipation about what the session would be about or how it would develop. I figured it probably would be fine.
AW: Did Bowie show any interest in the lighting or the other technical aspects of the session?
SS: No. He took it for granted. He seemed to assume that we were doing things properly. I always try to avoid this subject with the people I’m photographing because it distracts them from who they are. What I’m trying to get out of the session is the spirit of a person or the spirit of an event. I don’t think a photographer should start a session by looking at his camera or getting involved in technical things because it would take us away from the momentum and the mood of the shoot itself.
AW: Did you and Bowie keep in touch after the session?
SS: Yes. I have visited him in the house he was then renting in Los Angeles. And then I have worked on the film The Man Who Fell To Earth. We have seen each other a number of times after that. He had a tour in 1976 and we also worked together on the tour program. He knew I had worked with Buster Keaton. Bowie was one of his greatest fans and when we worked on that Isolar Tour program in 1976, he put one of my Buster Keaton pictures in it.
AW: How did you end up working on The Man Who Fell To Earth?
SS: I knew the producer and they all had seen that the vibe between Bowie and me was working out very well. When they’re having a movie set they don’t want a photographer who would create disturbances of any kind. The producers don’t want the photographer to get in the eye line of the actor or make noise with the camera. Working on a film, the photographer is the low man on the totem pole, because he is not helping the production while the film is being made. It’s just becoming important when the acting is made, in terms of the marketing of the film. But again, I knew the producer and everyone thought it would be a very relaxed situation. At the time, I was working with a lot of magazines. They probably must have felt that it would work from a publicity point of view. But mostly, I think they were feeling relaxed in using me.
AW: When you were shooting all these pictures, did you know they would be used as a cover for the two upcoming records, namely Station To Station and Low?
SS: I had no idea. Absolutely not. It was a total surprise for me. All I knew was that they had tested another picture when Golden Years was initially released. And now I know that the producers will use another picture I did for the box set that is to be released in September. It’s very similar to the last picture in my book. (Note: this part of the interview was done in March 2016, prior to the release of the box set Where Can I Be Now? – by Parlophone – later in September, featuring a picture shot by Steve Schapiro on the cover).
AW: The picture that was used as a cover for Station To Station is very different from the other album covers, because it shows Bowie in movement. It strikes me that the subject of the picture could be the movement itself rather than Bowie as a famous character. Do you agree?
SS: I do. The reason to that is because it’s not a closed-up shot. All of his other album covers are close-ups. It’s basically that you are not seeing him as big as he usually is on this album covers. If you look at the cover of the book Then and Now, there’s a picture that was taken at the same time as that of Station To Station.
AW: When Station To Station was released in 1976, did you pay any attention to the lyrics and how they could connect to the atmosphere of the photo session?
SS: Not really. I didn’t make any connection at the time. The picture used for Station To Station was also shot during the movie. These are pictures that give you another point of view on the film, as some of them were taken while the camera was still running. The subject was initially the film itself. They later turned out into an album cover, but it was not the initial purpose of that particular session. You know, I was there to work on the film, not on a Bowie album.
AW: Let us go back to the first session, prior to the movie. When Bowie started to draw all those symbols on the floor and the walls that later appeared to be linked to the Kabbalah, did you have any idea of what he was doing?
SS: I had no idea. I like to work very quietly as a fly on the wall. I never wanted to interrupt him, because it would have taken him out of what he was doing. Taking a pause in his concentration might end up to an interruption and not going back to it at all. I wanted to take advantage of as much time as he was involved in this position as possible. So I had just to be an observer.
AW: Did he tell you about Alistair Crowley and all his spiritual readings?
SS: We have talked about that. But he didn’t connect it to what he was doing during the session. You have to know that most of our conservations had happened afterwards. During the session, I had no idea of what he was doing. I wasn’t even familiar with neither the Kabbalah nor the Tree of Life.
AW: Bowie himself later stated in several interviews that he hardly remembered anything from that period. According to him, he was losing control because of drug abuse. Do you have the feeling that he was still in control when you worked together?
SS: I never saw any of that. None of my work with him, none of my collaboration with him, none of the time we have spent together could connect with that. Obviously, I have heard and read about it later. But it’s not something I have experienced myself while we were working together.
AW: Do you have the feeling that he wanted to control everything about his image?
No. The Rolling Stones or the Beatles have made fantastic music and fantastic songs and sort of dictated themselves year after year, but they have remained the same. Only the background has changed. Bowie on the contrary was very self-confident and wanted to continue to grow and create new things constantly. When he had done something, he had done it. And then he would go on with something else. It might even be a whole new persona. He was an actor as well as musician. Because he was very smart and had an enormous self confidence, he knew that he could keep growing.
AW: You have photographed a lot of different celebrities, from Andy Warhol to Lou Reed, Robert De Niro, Marlon Brando. How was Bowie any different from all the other famous people you have been working with?
SS: Everyone is unique! All of these people developed in different ways. Some of them were very quiet, some very noisy. What surprised me when I first met Bowie was that I had anticipated that it would be a very rock’n’roll type shoot. And it wasn’t in any way. He was very calm, intelligent and conversational. None of our conversations were about superstars. It was about what were doing and how we would be doing it. When you are working with someone like him, consciously our unconsciously, you are trying to collaborate to hopefully end up with some iconic images.
AW: In January, a couple of days after Bowie’s passing, I have written you to catch your attention on some details in the Lazarus video that were closely connected to your work with him. What was your first reaction?
SS: It was a highly emotional moment for me. It shows a sort of spiritual continuity with all the references to the Kabbalah and the white stripes on his shirt. I don’t know where those white stripes came from, but it had obviously a special meaning to him. To see him going back to that in his last moments was a highly emotional moment for me. It suddenly made the shoot that I did so much important in a way to me, in terms of the significance of it.
AW: Do you have any new personal project going on?
SS: I’m finishing a book called Misericordia which is the name of a community in Chicago started in 1974 by the sisters Rosemary. The community helps people with mental problems. They were people spending most of their time sitting in a room or watching television because they had the feeling that people were looking down on them because they are different. It is now a community of 600 people: they have a bakery, they package coffee, they work on computers. Suddenly it becomes a situation where everyone is the same. All their personalities can come out and they become unique for themselves. It’s totally joyous. You walk into a room and someone shakes your hand immediately, asks your name with a smile and starts a conversation.
AW: Do you still walk around with your camera? What do you think of the evolution of photography over the past 10 years with the introduction of smartphones?
SS: I think the traditional camera has become obsolete. Now everyone can handle a smartphone just as we used to handle traditional cameras. With resolution getting better and better on smartphones, you can now even print very large pictures. The other major evolution that started with digital cameras and now with the smartphones is that people shoot in color and no long think in terms of black and white. I still believe that black and white reveals more emotions than color pictures. If you shoot two persons in the street and one is wearing a red sweater, your eyes will be attracted to colorful outfit in a color picture. Then you’re losing a lot of the intensity and emotion of the moment you were trying to catch. On the other side, we are bombed with so many pictures that some of them get lost in the mass. For example I have seen six months ago what I think is a great picture of Obama. I see it as an example of what should become a classic picture of him. Nevertheless, I have spent a lot of time searching the Internet in order to find it back and it seems that it has disappeared among tons of other pictures of him. I will probably never see it again. Magazines have changed as well. In the 50s and the 60s, I loved to read long essays in magazines like Life that were spread on 8 or 10 pages, with a lot of pictures. Now, magazines only use a single picture to tell a story. Emotion and design have become less important. Also, all magazines now work with a small staff that will cover all the topics. It has become much harder for young photographers to get noticed. In the 60s, which is seen as the Golden Age of journalistic photography – you would easily find a magazine that was interested in what you were doing and assign you to do it. Your pictures would be published and the magazine would cover your expanses. But things have changed. That’s what is called progress… I guess.
AW: What you just said about that great picture of Obama, which got lost among tons of other pictures of him is very interesting. Because we can compare that with Bowie’s very limited use of social networks. During his whole career, everything he has done has been photographed. There are thousands and thousands of pictures out there documenting every single step in his career. But on the other side, he very rarely posted recent pictures of himself on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook. Regarding to what you just said about Obama, I see it as if Bowie had anticipated that posting new pictures of him could get him lost among the massive amounts of celebrities publishing their own photos online almost on a daily basis.
SS: I can’t answer that question. I can only take guesses. But we might think that his values have changed. Probably his heart attack had something to do with it and turned him into a more family-oriented person. Maybe more simplified in a way. It can be that he felt he had done most of what he wanted to do in those areas. He created a lot of characters and personas in his lifetime. And then he probably wanted to return to a simpler lifestyle. It must be a question of values I guess. It might have to do with health and family. He just became a person living in New York, going to a corner bakery. He was no longer looking for the attention he drew in his early years.
AW: Did you listen to his last record? Did you like it?
SS: Of course I did. It was highly emotional for all of us.
Albin Wantier’s preface to Steve Schapiro’s book entitled “BOWIE”: https://www.davidbowieblackstar.it/kabbalah-nuclear-fusion-and-immortality-david-bowies-signs/