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Photography exhibit honors impactful activists, celebrities
by Ariel Parrella-Aureli

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Steve Schapiro knows how to be in the right place at the right time.

He might not be a household name, but his photographs have been seen by thousands worldwide and his subjects are heroes of the civil-rights movement, the LGBTQ community and social-justice causes. The photojournalist and activist started photographing at the age of nine and has not stopped since.

The Chicago-based photographer's latest exhibit, "Activists and Icons: The Photographs of Steve Schapiro," can be seen at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie and features some of Schapiro's most influential work from the 1960s. From Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Joan Baez, Robert and Jacqueline Kennedy to James Baldwin, Schapiro was at the forefront of the civil rights movement and those standing up to injustices. He also photographed activists and celebrities who challenged cultural norms such as David Bowie, Barbra Streisand, Mohammed Ali, Andy Warhol and Rita Schwerner, widow of Michael Schwerner, one of the three activists killed by the Ku Klux Klan near Philadelphia, Mississippi in 1964.

"[The pictures] recollect a period of time and I am glad I was able to do something that helped depict the important period of time for all of us," Schapiro said. "Pictures that could possibly be iconic or do something that reverberates with people and have some emotional feelings about a lot of them make me happy."

As a documentarian and storyteller, that is the main goal: to share the scene and elicit a reaction from the public. Schapiro's photos show personal perspectives from historic icons in the equality movement and linger on many unknown young activists of the time. With signs that read "Stop police killings" and "We march for first-class citizenship" and a powerful image of a young Black man with the word "Vote" painted on his forehead, these images feel omnipresent and are still relevant today. Having experienced both historical times, Schapiro said the only difference between 1965 and now is the behavior of law enforcement.

"The difference back then was all the police were against this nonviolent movement that was going on to gain the vote and today it's more individual cops who have an inner sense of violence" and are less considerate toward minority groups, he said.

Chief curator Arielle Weininger said the theme of the exhibit is equality, a value that resonates with the LGBTQ community. A pioneer icon in the LGBTQ community was Bowie, who is the last picture in the gallery and representative of the LGBTQ scene. Weininger said he was included to show his impact on re-identifying gender and his embrace of cross-dressing. "[He] pushed the limits of what was 'out' in American society," Weininger said, adding that Baldwin, who was gay, did as well, although more privately.

Schapiro said the photoshoot with Bowie was very unexpected and it showed an aspect of him the public was not used to seeing: a spiritual side. He said Bowie was not flamboyant but rather calm and introspective; he drew white stripes on everything and then proceeded to draw on the floor the Tree of Life, or the Kabbalah in Jewish tradition.

Schapiro published a whole book about his time with Bowie in 2016, and he said he was influential to the LGBTQ community and to our culture as a whole for the way he expressed himself.

"All of us have a particular point of view and we don't always express [it] to its fullest but David Bowie expressed all of his inner feelings in a very strong way," Schapiro said. "I appreciate the enormous growth he had as a person and also all that he revealed as his inner self and his inner feelings."

The exhibition's 46 large-format photographs tell the story of pioneering moments in history from the March on Washington in 1963 to Robert Kennedy's presidential campaign in 1968. When gathering photos for it, Schapiro said he discovered many he had forgotten about, ones that had never been published but held the same weight as those already seen by the world. He did not think they would still be of interest today and that was certainly not on his mind as he was in the moment 50 years ago.

Weininger said seeing these unpublished photos show the dedication Schapiro had to the subject and why his work stood out from the other photographers capturing the events.

"He emphasized the day-to-day work of the organizers that are the thousands behind the few in order to make the movement work," she said.

The order of the photos was pivotal in telling the right story of Schapiro's character, the curators said, separating the gallery in half: one side is the icons and the other is the activists—and some blend into both.

"Schapiro documented the civil rights movement with care and intimacy, unlike others who arrived at a pivotal moment and left once they got the shot," said guest curator Erik Gellman, Associate Professor of History at the University of North Carolina.

Schapiro's photographs of the civil-rights movement appeared in Life magazine and, in the '70s, he did work for Rolling Stone, Look, Time, Newsweek, Vanity Fair, Sports Illustrated, People and Paris Match. He also shot on set of "Taxi Driver," "Midnight Cowboy," "The Godfather," "Rambo," "Risky Business" and "Billy Madison." He also published 11 books and his work has been in worldwide renowned art galleries.

One would never know that it is a challenge for Schapiro to take good photos—or so he says. Looking back on all of the people he has photographed in the past—many who became his close friends—Schapiro considers his career a humbling one and is happy these pictures are receiving more exposure now, after all these years.

"Those people still have the same charisma that they used to have," he said. "I have been very lucky in terms of who I have been able to photograph and the experience of doing it."

The exhibit runs until Oct. 27, 2019, and is free with museum admission. See .

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