by Dirck Halstead
a young UPI photographer, working out of New York during the
1960s, covering the mass cultural transformation sweeping
the country, I was constantly running into another photographer
about my age. We'd bump into each other at places like Andy
Warhol's Factory, or on a college campus during one form of
civil disturbance or another. He was a LIFE photographer,
and his name was Steve Schapiro.
was a disciple of W. Eugene Smith, and shared Smith's passion
for black and white documentary work. He had already set a mission
for himself, to chronicle the "icons" of American Life.
traveled from coast to coast, from migrant farms in Arkansas,
to Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco. He covered the civil rights
struggles and got to know the people who would shape a generation,
and who were considered among the most dynamic of this past
you thumb through the pages of "American Edge," you're conscious
of the fact that these icons still stand out as defining figures
forty years later. The Kennedys, the Rolling Stones, Martin
Luther King Jr., and Andy Warhol, to name but a few. In contrast,
Steve feels that we are now going through, as he calls it, a
"period of American valium."
In Dean Hickey's introduction to the book, he writes: "We could
no longer imagine the situation of Walker Evans or Robert Frank,
adrift in the heartland, surprising America in its naked, interior
innocence and being surprised by it - because nothing surprised
us. In Schapiro's moment, every picture contained pictures and
every person was a picture too, pre-costumed, posed and they're
to be taken. Look at his celebrity portraits of Jack and Jackie
Kennedy, of Chuck Berry and Ray Charles, of Magritte doubling
his own image, and Warhol mimicking the pose of his own self-portraits.
Shapiro takes their pictures, but he also captures the cool
opacity of creatures who understood that history had become
pictures and that pictures became history. In that moment everything
turned outward and aspired to be visible. Everything and everyone
self-evidently meant something, so people wore words as well
as thinking them and speaking them. They bore their convictions
on their sleeves, wrote them on walls, carried them as signs,
painted them on their faces, stitched them to their hats, clipped
them to their lips, aspiring to become those words incarnate.
And in a world like this, in the midst of this profound, externalized
knowingness, there could be no innocence of the sort Frank and
Evans discovered, only a sustained argument for its recovery
and a plangent elegy for its loss--a theatre of innocence, as
opaque and persuasive as the theatre of experience."
when he was the happiest, Steve says, "Now!" I'm happiest now,
because I've been able to do a number of things, but also because
I've got a new vision. I taught a course two years ago on documentary
photography at UCLA Extension, and the first picture I showed
was a Walker Evans photograph taken in New York, and there is
this car and it's 1926 or 1927, and there is the city. There
are no people in it. It seems this man had to be incredibly
smart to realize that something that looked totally natural
40 years later would be a historical event. Because things change,
times change, the world is constantly changing, and the pictures
we have of it today won't be there 40 or 50 years from now--so
if you can really show the world today, its going to be incredibly
important then if you can show all the artifacts of the world.
Walker Evans was an incredible photographer, because he showed
all the artifacts of his world, as they were: photographs, tools,
signs, watermelons. Fifty years from now it will be significant.
So if you think this way, if you begin to think in documentary
terms of the world you are living in now and realize that the
pictures you looked at that were taken many years ago were really
like the world you see today - it's going to make you a better
photographer. So I am happy now, because I have a sense of this."
is now working on a book about contemporary America that will
have the same spirit and character as American Edge. I suspect
that Walker Evans, Robert Frank, and Gene Smith would all think
their legacy was in good hands.
the AMERICAN EDGE photo gallery