Shooting Starman: The Intimate Bowie Photographs Of Steve SchapiroFamed photojournalist Steve Schapiro chronicled the rock icon from 1974 to 1976, and led to a brilliant photobook.
July 8, 2018
Written by Mike “DJ” Pizzo
At 81 years of age, photographer Steve Schapiro has a lifetime of iconic images attributed to his name. His vast experience includes: documenting Robert Kennedy on his presidential bid and capturing the cast on the set of The Godfather; marching on Selma and Washington DC with Martin Luther King, Jr. and immortalizing Robert DeNiro’s Travis Bickle for Taxi Driver.
Schapiro’s impressive credentials also include shooting for Life, Sports Illustrated, Vanity Fair, and Time, and lassoing Midnight Cowboys Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman with his lens.
As one of the most revered names in photojournalism, Steve Schapiro, in 2016 released his seventh photobook, Bowie, which chronicles a two year period of shooting the Thin White Duke, from 1974 to 1976.
“He was extremely easy to work with,” recounts Schapiro. “I’d worked with rock and rollers, and because of all the shows he’s done, and the images I’d seen, I had expected him to show up with cartons of beer and a whole entourage or something like that.
He was extremely calm, intelligent, and relaxed. There never was a problem in any way. Quite the opposite. He was extremely inventive in the things that he did.
I think sometimes he would get bored with what he had done already and look for something else. Throughout his career, he changed radically all of the time.”
While only shooting David for that two year period — including the album covers for Station to Station and Low — Steve Schapiro had another opportunity to join him on tour in 1987, but it didn’t come to fruition.
“I didn’t speak to him for a while, and then in 1987, he called me wanting me to go on tour with him, about 15 minutes before my family and I were about to leave to the airport to France for a vacation,” he remembers.
“It was really a tough decision, but I really had to stay with my family. I would have loved to have done it. But it was last minute, in terms of where we were at with our plans, so I just couldn’t do it. Especially during that time period, we were close in terms of what we did, and we had a very good relationship.”
Like most of us, Schapiro had no idea about Bowie’s bout with liver cancer; that day in 1987 would have been his last chance to shoot him. But Bowie did give his blessing to the project from afar.
“I had no knowledge at all,” Schapiro says of his health. “In terms of this project, I sent a message to Bowie through his assistant asking if he would write a few things for the book. I got a note back that David really wished me the best with the project and hoped to see it in the Spring of 2016.
But I had no idea what he was going through. I think he kept that very, very quiet. You see all of these things about Burt Reynolds, which become very public about what his health is like. There’s nothing like that about Bowie. I would imagine that after his heart attack, it changed his whole way of looking at things, and he was much more involved with his family and things of that sort.”
In addition to the book, Schapiro was also tapped to provide photos for a David Bowie box set, covering the 1974–76 period.
“They asked me to come up with eight pictures that hadn’t been seen for that box set. David actually picked that cover himself in October of 2015.”
Steve Schapiro graciously offered a look at select images with commentary from the 100+ page volume.
“We shot that while he was filming The Man Who Fell To Earth in New Mexico. I worked on that film, but this wasn’t for the actual film. We shot this in a spare moment outside when he was relaxing.
Actually, he was practicing pellet shooting for enjoyment. It’s been a very successful picture. Rolling Stone picked it up sometime later, actually pretty close to that time. It’s been widely received.”
“The first shoot I did with him started at four in the afternoon — this was in 1974 — and ended up at four in the morning, where I shot him on the front of his motorcycle, with just the lights from a car lighting it.
During that shoot, we decided that we wanted to do some headshots for magazines and we decided that the worst possible cover for a magazine was putrid green, which is what we used.
We shot them that way and then in 1976; People magazine used it as a cover.”
“That would be the motorcycle shoot at night. What happened was, I think it was a period where he was trying out different personalities. Given all of the wild outfits he had come up with until this period when I did the shoot, my assistant was wondering what he was going to come out with.
We expected something very sexy and wild.
The things he came out with were very different in some ways. It was like he was trying out different characters which would be possible, in terms of other projects that he did.
This was one of them, in terms of that shirt, the tie, and the goggles.
In the course of this shoot, I would be ready to take a picture, and he would say ‘Wait, just a minute’ and he’d go into the dressing room and come back 20 minutes later wearing something totally different, and I had never shot the first one.”
“Personally, there were a lot of different things to shoot. The important thing about this shoot; he borrowed sort of a black crop neck shirt from one of my assistants. He went into the dressing room, and when he came out, he had these white diagonal stripes on his shirt and his pants. Even his toes were painted white.
It’s exactly the same outfit that he wore in the ‘Lazarus’ video. It was the only two times he wore that outfit. He was drawing Kabbalah images on the paper we were using also. He drew something called the Tree of Life, which is a Kabbalah image.”
“It was a period when he was very into different types of philosophies. I think one of them that he was involved in was the Kabbalah, which pops up again in the Station to Station album.
It was sort of like an occult religious period for him. He drew all of those circles in the background. On one of the images, he drew a question mark. Then on the floor, he drew the Tree of Life diagram from the Kabbalah.”
“This was in his house in L.A. We were just sitting around, and I was able to do it. I like the picture. Especially what’s interesting is his hands, they are very special, in a way. The way he has his fingers is interesting.”
“We spoke a lot about Buster Keaton who was one of his heroes. When he heard that I had photographed him, when we first met that day, we immediately became good friends. I helped put together his tour program for 1976, and he took one of my Keaton pictures and put it in the brochure.”
“This is a very moody picture that I took in 1976, which shows a different side of Bowie, not the one you usually see.”
Photo selects from “Bowie: Photographs by Steve Schapiro,” published by powerHouse Books.
Photos courtesy of Steve Schapiro
© 2016 Steve Schapiro
Also be sure to check out the weekly RTN feature “Lost Tracks.” We focus on deep cuts from rock’s royalty that never received the attention the song deserved, including the unlikely marriage of Heavy Metal and Hip-Hop in a song that gave the finger to the system.