Steve Schapiro - American Edge

A Multimedia Presentation of
The Digital Journalist

Exerpted from "American Edge"

Published by Arena Editions

Photographs by Steve Schapiro

Introduction by Dirck Halstead

As 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.

Steve 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.

He 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 century.

As 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."

Asked 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."

Steve 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.

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