The Digital Journalist
Schapiro's Heroes
November 2007

by David Friend

[Author's Note from Steve Schapiro: 'Hero' frame is the best image in a group of similar photographic images. Looking at a contact sheet of photographs, an editor would write 'hero' next to the one picture he/she particularly liked. The hero frame, or 'hero' as it was simply called, would then become the lead picture or perhaps the magazine cover. My book, "Schapiro's Heroes," includes my 'hero frames' of Robert F. Kennedy, Muhammad Ali, Martin Luther King Jr., James Baldwin, Truman Capote, Andy Warhol, Barbra Streisand, Ray Charles, Samuel Beckett and Jackie Kennedy Onassis.]

The term "hero" has evolved over time. For centuries, heroes were the central characters in myths: individuals, chiefly male, who embodied humanity's grandest ideals. They were born in mysterious settings, operated in a loftier realm than men and women, strove for immortality, struggled through a gauntlet of perilous tasks, died spectacular deaths and, quite often, experienced miraculous rebirths. They were rare creatures of providence who were regarded with respect by both the gods above and mere mortals below.

In contemporary times, we still consider these mythic figures as heroic. We think of Oedipus or Robin Hood, Romulus or Paris (not Ms. Hilton, of course, but Paris of Troy, who was nursed by a she-bear, raised as Alexander, and later brought calamity to his city). But we also apply the word hero to two other types. First, heroes are ordinary people who, confronted with extraordinary circumstances or challenges, end up saving lives, leading struggles, or reaffirming humanity's best principles through their acts of will, sacrifice, conviction, or daring. Many of them we know by deed, though not by name or face; others go unnoticed altogether by the mass of men and women, having committed what Wordsworth called "nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and love."

A second form of hero is the almost larger-than-life personality in our culture, someone who epitomizes extraordinary achievement in one or more areas of endeavor: entertainment or sports, business or philanthropy, public service or world affairs, academia or theology, the arts or the sciences. These individuals, renowned and celebrated by society at large, serve to inspire the common man and woman. They represent our Best Selves, Writ Large.

Photographer Steve Schapiro has spent much of his career focusing on these latter, public heroes. Unlike most of us, he has been granted access to their charmed lives. He has visited their homes and offices, spent time with their families, and been allowed to remain for extended periods as a trusted observer. His camera lens, in turn, has served as the conduit through which their heroism has been conveyed to the rest of us.

In the past, heroes' lives were best rendered in words—in fireside stories passed along by word of mouth, in song, in epic poetry. But in the modern era, it is often pictures that best capture, edify, and magnify our heroes. Photographs grant their subjects stature, permanence, ubiquity. And a great photographic portrait—think Margaret Bourke-White's study of Mahatma Gandhi seated at his spinning wheel or Josef Karsh's Winston Churchill glowering directly into the camera—offers a definitive portrayal of that flesh-and-blood hero, a visual icon for humanity's enduring adoration.

One of Steve Schapiro's chief talents over the years has been his ability to make both intimate and classic images of so many vaunted personalities: Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, Mohammad Ali and Andy Warhol, James Baldwin and Samuel Beckett, Jacqueline Kennedy and Truman Capote, Barbra Streisand and Ray Charles, all of whom he considers his personal heroes. Shooting on assignment for some of the great picture journals—Life and Look and The New York Times Magazine—for movie companies, or on his own initiative, he succeeded in getting close to his subjects by relying on his resourcefulness, his kind-hearted spirit, his persuasive wiles. His photography has also benefited from his remarkable sense of humanity and empathy—and a network of trusting contacts—through his long-term commitment to covering the civil rights movement throughout the 1960s.

Here, then, are Schapiro's Heroes, from the new book [PowerHouse] of the same name. His images, in the words of photographer Frank Ward, of Amherst College, "combine New York grit and L.A. glamour"—along with a preternatural perceptiveness and no small measure of compassion and tenderness.

View The "Schapiro's Heroes" Gallery

To see more of Steve Schapiro's work, click on this link to his story, "American Edge," in the Dec. 2000 issue of The Digital Journalist:

© David Friend

David Friend, an editor at Vanity Fair and contributing editor to The Digital Journalist, is the author of "Watching the World Change: The Stories Behind the Images of 9/11."