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Renowned Photographer Steve Shapiro Publishes Photobook Bowie, Showcasing the Many Facades of Artist David Bowie

Text by Athina Lugez

In 1974, David Bowie was at the apex of his career, having already slipped into the skin of Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane. The artist quickly climbed to the height of superstardom for his musical contributions, but as well for having challenged many rigid social conceptions on fashion, gender and sexuality. One afternoon of that same year, Steve Shapiro, an american photographer, received his first opportunity to shoot Bowie in an L.A. studio.

Shapiro has seen more than the ordinary eye. The photographer witnessed and captured key historical moments of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, such as the March on Washington or the Selma to Montgomery March. Shapiro was also a unit stills photographer for movies The Godfather, Taxi Driver and Chinatown. Additionally, having followed the career of David Bowie with his lens, the photographer is finally publishing the extensive collection of images he has captured of the artist.

Published by Powerhouse books, Bowie: Photographs by Steve Shapiro, showcases an intimate and personal account of David Bowie between 1974 to 1987. This photobook features never-before seen images of Bowie at his most creative and self-inspired. These photographs expose the collaborative efforts of Shapiro and Bowie during photoshoots, where they experimented with ideas that would inspire Bowie's next musical and artistic ventures.

In the words of Shapiro, “ This is not a rock and roll book, as we’ve seen before of David Bowie in performance. This is a more personal account of who Bowie was as a person. You get a better glimpse of him as someone who was really there, not so much a reflection in your eyes of Bowie’s character in performance. This book gives a sense of spirit of Bowie.”

“At the time, he was already a very well known artist, a major talent. But on meeting Bowie, he was a different image of what I’ve made of him. In the sense, that I had seen pictures of him in the great outfits, in different costumes of all the touring that he had done. He came dressed normally and was very calm, very intelligent, very relaxed in a way, no groupies, or cartons of beer or anything like that. He was very quiet in the way he spoke and focused about what the photoshoot would be about.”

During their first encounter, Bowie and Shapiro bounded over the esoteric writings of Alister Crowley and Buster Keaton. According to Shapiro, Bowie was in a very spiritual mood in 1974 and this was reflected in the photographs he captured of Bowie, kneeling behind a pale blue backdrop and drawing a diagram of the Sephirot of Kabbalah. It has been interpreted by the photographer that Bowie’s drawings served as a personal starting point to question the meaning of life.

“Nothing in this shoot was prepared in advance. […] All the ideas were really of Bowie’s. He was a person of great confidence really great confidence in himself and he would come up with new ideas constantly. One of the reasons for this shoot was to try out different ideas and personas he might develop in performance or music. He brought along costumes and things to try out. He definitely had specific ideas of what he wanted to do in this session. My responsibility was to fortify this and bring from David’s imagination into the light of day.” said Shapiro.

One of these images served as the back cover of Bowie’s 1976 album Station to Station. The image showcases David Bowie sitting on the floor, with his legs swept to his side, wearing an assorted navy shirt and trouser, with diagonal white stripes Bowie had painted. What makes this image so iconic, is that on a vantage point of 40 years after the image was taken, the artist wore a similar outfit in his video Lazarus of the Backstar album.

Having photographed many renowned figures such as Robert Di Niro, Mohammed Ali or Robert Kennedy, Shapiro explained that Bowie was one of the easiest people he shot. Bowie had a strong sense of who he was, as well as the characters he was interested in projecting. He knew how to discern the different identities he carried. To the contrary, Shapiro mentioned that photographing actors was particularly difficult because they built their characters internally as externally and they become that character while they are on am film. However, once they must confront to the camera, with their own persona, they don’t know who they are or what image they should be projecting.

Despite Bowie’s dramatic artistic and stylistic transformations over the course of his career, Shapiro always attempted to represent the spirit of his subject as accurately as he could. The book also showcases images of Bowie as an actor on the set of The Man Who Fell to Earth, his first feature film. Additionally, images of Bowie’s shoot for his 1977 album cover Low, as well as his appearances of the Cher Show or Bowie’s cover story for People magazine with a putrid green background.

“When i photograph someone, I try to be on their wavelength. With Bowie, I tried to really work with him, it’s a collaboration said or unsaid, consciously or unconsciously. You’re both trying to work out the images that are iconic or strong that give a strong sense of the person or the spirit of an event. You’re always doing that, and that certainly was true with David. I tried to project him in the best possible way either in the character or persona that he was in,” concluded Shapiro.