PHOTOGRAPHS BY STEVE SCHAPIRO
At the very apex of David Bowie’s spectacular rise to rock ‘n’ roll fame and glory, photographer Steve Schapiro seized a rare invitation from Bowie’s manager for a private photo session with the pop star in Los Angeles in 1974. At that time, Bowie had already lived the life of Ziggy Stardust and launched Aladdin Sane with albums Pin Ups and Diamond Dogs soon to come. A musical force to be reckoned with, Bowie was also widely regarded as a fashion icon, pushing the envelope of sexuality and style and having created an internationally renowned persona.
The mostly never-before-published images in Bowie (powerHouse Books, April 2016), reveal his most creative and inspired self, and present a glimpse into the intimacy that Schapiro and Bowie shared during their time together. “From the moment Bowie arrived, we seemed to hit it off. Incredibly intelligent, calm, and filled with ideas,” remembers Schapiro. “He talked a lot about Aleister Crowley, whose esoteric writings he was heavily into at the time. When David heard that I had photographed Buster Keaton, one of his greatest heroes, we instantly became friends.”
The first photo session started at four in the afternoon and went through the night until dawn. Bowie went through countless costume changes, each one seemingly befitting an entirely new and unknown Bowie persona. Most incredible, from a vantage point some 40 years later, was the costume and doodles of a particular session: Bowie dressed in blue slacks and cropped shirt, painted with diagonal white stripes, and scribbling what appears to be a diagram from the Kabbalah. They show up again in the video accompanying the song “Lazarus” on the Blackstar album.
All images from Bowie photographs by David Shapiro courtesy of powerHouse Books, 2016. http://www.powerhousebooks.com/books/david-bowie-2/
PONYBOY: Mr. Schapiro, please tell us how you first connected with David Bowie. Were you on assignment for a magazine?
STEVE SCHAPIRO: Actually, Bowie’s manager called me. I had worked with him before and he asked me if I’d like to do a shoot with David Bowie; and before he could finish the sentence, I said yes!
That’s how it all started really. We set up in a studio in Los Angeles in the morning, you know, lights and all, and he came later, around four in the afternoon. We were surprised, as we didn’t know what he would come as. We knew, of course, the Ziggy image from all the press at the time, which was very flamboyant. So, we were all wondering what he would come out of the dressing room dressed as.
He had actually borrowed a shirt from one of my assistants and went into the dressing room and came out twenty minutes later; and he had painted himself with these white stripes, these diagonal stripes on everything he was wearing. Even his toes were white.
And then he proceeded to draw these circles, these large circles on the background paper, and finally started writing in a little notebook, and drew on the background paper a Kabbalah graph, which was the tree of life. We didn’t know what that was, or what he was drawing. And that was the start of our photo session.
He basically had a very strong idea what the session would be about. He brought a lot of costumes with him and I assume what he was doing was trying out different characters to see which ones would work in the future, in terms of characters for his music and tours.
PONYBOY: Your first sitting with Bowie lasted several hours. Was it just hanging out as you snapped away? Or was it a bit more planned out?
STEVE SCHAPIRO: It was a very relaxed session. Like I said, he came with a lot of outfits. And I would pick up my camera and want to shoot an outfit, but then he would say, “Wait a minute! I want to fix something!” and run into the bathroom and come back twenty minutes later wearing something totally different. And I would have missed the opportunity to photograph the first outfit.
PONYBOY: From the photos in the book, we see his many fascinating personalities or characters. They seem very raw and authentic, unlike other photographer’s sessions or shoots that we’ve seen in the past.
STEVE SCHAPIRO: I think most of the pictures that we’ve seen before were really rock ’n’ roll pictures. Most of the books really involved performance photos. I felt that this was a very personal shoot in the sense that there are a number of pictures in this book where he is looking directly in the camera, not as Ziggy Stardust the rock ‘n’ roll star, but as Davey Jones; and he seems to be exactly himself.
Basically he gave me what he really wanted to give me, and I just brought into light the things that he did. There were a few things that we collaborated on, because basically when you work with someone who is extremely talented as Bowie was, there is a collaboration, consciously or subconsciously, unless they really don’t like to be photographed, in which case they just want to get out of there. But in this case, it was a collaboration and I was just on the receiving end, trying to bring his ideas, you know, his persona into daylight.
Up to that point, most of what I had seen of Bowie was very much in character and very flamboyant, sexy characters. It was a surprise, a change. This basically is not a rock ’n’ roll book per se, it’s something that is much more personal to me.
PONYBOY: Were you a fan of his music at the time? Had you ever seen him in concert or bought his records?
STEVE SCHAPIRO: Oh, sure. Everybody in the world was a fan.
PONYBOY: He was obviously destined to be a star, much in the vein of an Elvis or Michael Jackson. Did he have that star quality when he walked into a room? Did you feel that the first time you met him?
STEVE SCHAPIRO: Yes, I definitely think he had that quality. Something I would say about David Bowie is that he constantly was changing. For example, the Rolling Stones and the Beatles gave us fantastic music. But basically, in terms of their careers, and in terms of Mick Jagger, their performances were very much the same over the years. The backgrounds would change, and the music might be different, but the way Mick performs is pretty much the same, as well as the costumes he wears. They really aren’t that different.
It seems to me that Bowie, well I’m not sure if he got tired of doing the same thing or if it was a sense of personal growth, but he kept changing and growing constantly. When he felt he had done something, he would basically move on. And, you know, that to me is pure genius. It’s the way he developed his career.
For example, in the Lazarus video that he did, right before he died, he knew that he wouldn’t be around too much longer, and he went back to the same outfit. I’m actually not sure if it’s the same outfit or a reproduction, but I think it’s the two times that he actually wore that outfit.
He was very spiritual, it was obvious to me, being into the Kabbalah. A lot of this appears on Station to Station as well. Certainly at the very end he was obviously into a spiritual moment. So when I saw that he had appeared in the Lazarus video dressed that way, it just really touched me.
PONYBOY: What are your thoughts on Bowie’s style?
STEVE SCHAPIRO: I was surprised by the red and white stripe outfit that he wore at the shoot, which to me was a bit different. Everything to me seemed to be very directed, very disciplined in the terms of what he was trying to do with the outfits, like the motorcycle outfit. He obviously was creating a character with a specific mindset.
PONYBOY: It’s funny you mention the motorcycle shot. That’s our favorite image from the book, him on the bike, with that pose and the headlights on. Tell us about that part of the session.
STEVE SCHAPIRO: That motorcycle shot was the last thing that we did. The session started really at four in the afternoon and ended at four in the morning with the motorcycle shot. It was actually lit with the headlights of a car outside. And I do feel that the motorcycle series is very much into a character. We spent quite a bit of time with that outfit, taking quite a bit of photos.
PONYBOY: We also love the black and white images of him in the trailer, with that backstage feel, him combing his hair. It has an almost Elvis quality or aura. Was that when he was filming The Man Who Fell from Earth?
STEVE SCHAPIRO: Yes, that was on the set. And the Rolling Stone magazine cover came from that. It was just a very relaxed setting, just relaxing outside. Oh and the pellet gun! He’s not someone who would normally walk around with a gun. So, yeah, the ones that were set in the trailer were from the set of The Man Who Fell from Earth, as well as the office from the house that he was living in at the time in Los Angeles.
PONYBOY: The People magazine cover from 1976 is just so odd, especially for the time, with the green background and his somewhat strange expression. Of course, it’s genius in so many ways. But at the time, what kind of reception did it receive from the editors and staff at People, and the general public as well?
STEVE SCHAPIRO: Well, we were doing a series of headshots. And we both felt that a putrid green for a background color, in terms of a magazine color, would just be horrible. We said it laughing all the way. And then People magazine and other magazines used those images. So it was done in a joking way, though he was doing poses for it. It was all a joke, and it turned out to be used quite a bit.
People magazine liked it. They had a selection of pictures to use. Creem magazine had seen the pictures and used a picture, and some other magazines did as well from the session. It was just something that they had picked up on. And there’s no accounting for taste.
PONYBOY: Ultimately, how many sessions or shoots did you have with Bowie?
STEVE SCHAPIRO: I don’t know, probably about four or five. Well, I worked on The Man who Fell from Earth and I did the Cher show and Space Oddity show for Dick Clark. I also worked with him in terms of putting out this program for his tour called Isolar.
PONYBOY: Were there times when you were with him holding your camera, ready to shoot or shooting, and he would just shy away from the camera or tell you to stop, basically not in the mood to be photographed?
STEVE SCHAPIRO: No. It was always a very relaxed shoot. Basically, for most of it, I was like a fly on the wall in the sense that I was trying to shoot as quickly as possible to catch as much of what he was doing. You know he’s a performer, performing. When he was in front of the camera he was always very much in tune and aware of what he was doing. In the images he was trying to create a persona or character.
PONYBOY: Was there a moment during a session with him where you caught him off guard and luckily snapped an image, like that famous image of Marilyn Monroe photographed by Richard Avedon, the final image from a very long sitting?
STEVE SCHAPIRO: Yes. The shoot where his hands were in the foreground, and also the last shot in the book, which I feel have that same quality. There’s a little of that also in the black and white portrait where he’s looking at me, when he’s in the office. So in those three pictures in particular, I feel he was giving me who he was. He was going beyond the costumes. When you get to the motorcycle pictures, he’s really giving you a character, being a character. And in a lot of the other situations, he’s being a character as well.
PONYBOY: Did you consider him your friend? Or would you say it was more of a business relationship?
STEVE SCHAPIRO: Well, when you work with someone, basically if you’re on their wavelength, well, that’s the most important thing to be. I worked a lot for Life magazine, and you would tend to be best friends with someone when you were shooting; and you may never see them again. We didn’t play a lot of cards together.
PONYBOY: When was the last time that you saw him or spoke to him? Were you aware that he was sick?
STEVE SCHAPIRO: No. I don’t think really anybody knew. He hid it quite well. I mean everyone knew that he had the heart attack and he sort of slowed down after that. But I don’t think that anyone knew, besides a very small circle of people. I felt that a little in October of 2015, when we were first putting the book out. We got this message back from him, from his assistant, that he wished us well on the project and that he hoped to see it in April of 2016.
I think it was in 1985 that he called me out of the blue and asked me if I would shoot his tour. And I had not heard from him for a while. And he called me literally fifteen minutes before I was walking to go out the door with my wife and son to go on a much needed, overdue vacation to Paris. There was no way I could do the tour. We were just about to get on the plane. I would have loved to have done it. But there was no way I could do that.
PONYBOY: The book with powerHouse sold out in two days. And it’s already in it’s second printing, to be released in June. Had you always planned on having a book on Bowie? Did his death bring out the release of the book?
STEVE SCHAPIRO: I started planning the book in August 2015, and by October we were definitely doing the book. We were first planning on bringing it out in April, then thought of putting it out later in the year, in 2016. And then when he died, we immediately started putting everything together and the focus definitely changed much more to the Kabbalah pictures. And I had received an email from Albin, which became the text for the beginning of the book, which brought into sight the spiritual side of him and his interest in the Kabbalah. That immediately became the primary focus of the book, I would say.
PONYBOY: You’ve photographed so many famous, extraordinary people from Bobby Kennedy and Marlon Brando to Andy Warhol and Edie Sedgwick at the Factory. Iconic images that remain embedded in our brains, like the image of a young Jodie Foster from the set of Taxi Driver. But what impact did David Bowie make on your life, from your sessions with him?
STEVE SCHAPIRO: The impact that he made on me is that he impressed me from the beginning as someone who had a very spiritual nature underneath the costumes and the performances he was doing. And he also seemed to have a timeline of what he was doing, to be developing in his mind a sequence of events, of characters. So, all of that very much impressed me. And his personality, of course, impressed me in a very strong way.
He was obviously very brilliant. It was just a joy and a pleasure working with someone who had all those qualities. You work with a lot of people where you have to pull pictures out of them, and where you’re not getting very much content, not getting a lot out of them.
The spirit of the person is what I’m after as a photographer. Bowie certainly brought that through. When you work with someone like that, it’s an exhilarating moment.
PONYBOY: One last question for you, Mr. Schapiro. There’s an amazing black and white photograph that we saw on the internet of you running with 7 or 8 cameras around your neck and shoulders. Does that image sum up your life as a journalistic photographer?
STEVE SCHAPIRO: That picture is from the Bobby Kennedy campaign. And, yes, that was pretty much my life. It was not knowing where you were gonna be from day to day. I was never on the staff of Life magazine, but I was probably working more than any of their staff photographers. I moved very quickly from one thing to another.
I worked with Sports Illustrated, the Mohammed Ali pictures. I did covers for most magazines, like Time, Newsweek, etc. You were a journalistic photographer and you did the best you could. Film rolls were sent overnight to the Life lab. And you wouldn’t see them until they were in the magazines, because you were moving around so much. You might not get your contact sheets back until much later. You did not know you were involved in history of any sort or anything like that. Your entire focus was on if the photos would run in the magazine the following week, if they were good enough, and if they would use them. There weren’t really any photo galleries at the time. It was a very different period of time.
The sixties were basically the great age of journalistic photography. You had access. There were no public relations people to get in your way. And, basically, the photos got used in a great way. There were a lot of great picture magazines, and you could find a lot that would support your work at that time. All of that’s changed very much.