‘LIFE’ photographer of the ’60s and ’70s shows work at St. Paul’s
John Shearer, a former staff photographer for Life Magazine, pauses while speaking to students about his photographs from the 1971 riot in the Attica Correctional Facility during a gallery talk at the Hargate Art Center at St. Paul's School in Concord on Monday, January 20, 2014. Shearer's retrospective is on display at the gallery through February 15.
(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
Horace Wilcox in a Prichard, Alabama jail.
(Courtesy of John Shearer)
Those of a certain age will remember the powerful role that photo magazines LOOK and LIFE played in one’s view of the world and of life in America. Who can forget the iconic photo at JFK’s funeral – his grief-stricken widow, and little John-John salut
John Shearer photographed in 1971 outside of the Attica Correctional Facility in New York.
(Courtesy of John Shearer)
Those of a certain age will remember the powerful role that photo magazines LOOK and LIFE played in one’s view of the world and of life in America. Who can forget the iconic photo at JFK’s funeral – his grief-stricken widow, and little John-John saluting his father as the casket passed? Sadly, those magazines are no longer in existence, but the photographer who took that picture is still at work creating new photographs.
John Shearer’s work is on display at St. Paul’s School in the Hargate Gallery through Feb. 15. It’s partly a retrospective of his coverage of the major events of the 1960s and ’70s: the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, the Attica Prison riot, the Ali vs. Frazier “fight of the century” and many more; and partly Shearer’s more recent works, including flower studies and stark western landscapes.
Shearer was invited to St. Paul’s as a Taylor Visiting Artist, gallery director Colin Callahan said. The school’s visiting artists display their work and work with students.
“They’re chosen beyond the subject matter for technique,” Callahan said. “Shearer has a strong sense of design, superb technical skills, and that’s what distinguishes his work from a lot of other photojournalists.
“You can be attracted to the subject matter (like the Kennedy funeral), but the actual quality of the work itself – the darkroom process, technical decisions that are made – that’s the kind of thing that we want here for our students. He’s here because he’s a very good photographer.”
Shearer spent several hours Monday giving a gallery talk to about two dozen students. He related what he experienced when he was taking photographs during those turbulent times and discussed the differences between photography then and now.
“Working with conventional film brought an additional set of disciplines that you had to think about,” Shearer told the students. “For example, you’re shooting something and you’re pushing the film to 1200 or 1600 (film speed) because it’s dark. Then you go into another situation and it’s really bright so you’re going to pull that roll out of the camera, and reload the camera with a fresh roll of film, because the film had to be developed chemically. With a digital camera, basically you just change the setting.”
He noted that with film photography, everything had to be preset. You had to gauge the distance from the subject. There were no light meters, no auto focus, no zoom lens.
Equipment isn’t the only thing that’s changed.
“We had more time then to do a story than folks do now,” Shearer said. “You could dig under the surface more. You didn’t work with a cast of thousands – you were kind of by yourself.
“There are so many outlets now – everyone’s eating each other’s lunch.”
Shearer knew early on that photography would be his life’s work.
“As a little kid, I struggled to learn to read,” he said. “When I stumbled onto photography, I read everything I could about it.”
Starting about age 12, he entered many contests and routinely won prizes; by age 13 he had decided that he wanted to work for LIFE or LOOK magazine.
Shearer achieved his goal and broke some ground along the way. He was one of the first African-American photographers for LIFE magazine, as well as the youngest ever hired at LOOK.
He had his first one-man show at age 14, at the Eastman Kodak Gallery. He met his mentor, Arthur Rothstein, a LOOK magazine photographer, at that show. Rothstein took him on as an apprentice.
“I’d load his film, carry his bags, stuff like that,” Shearer said. “That’s kind of how it was then. People apprenticed a lot. That’s how you broke in. It’s the best way to learn, in a way.”
On the day of JFK’s funeral in 1963, Rothstein asked Shearer, then 16, if he wanted to come along.
“He got me some press tags,” Shearer said, “and told me, ‘Go on, get outta here and take some pictures.’ ”
He knew that a great picture would help his budding career, and he made his way through the crowd and up onto the top of a grandstand, where he wasn’t supposed to be. He had a split-second opportunity to take the famous photo before he was pulled off by a security guard. In the tumble, his brand-new camera lens was destroyed. But it was worth it, he said.
Shearer had some harrowing experiences during his career.
Early on, he was told that he wouldn’t be able to cover stories in the South. It’s too dangerous, he was told. You won’t be able to stay in a hotel or eat in a restaurant.
Undaunted, Shearer persisted. He and his friend Vernon Merritt, a white staff photographer at LIFE, covered riots in numerous southern cities. Standing back-to-back, photographing in opposite directions, they were able to see if the police were coming after them and would make a quick exit.
During the 1971 March on Washington, he was up in front with the anti-war protesters as they faced the police.
“It was always important to me to be invisible, in the middle of it all,” he said. “I felt I could get better pictures that way. It started, oddly enough, because I was a shy kid.
“I realized the more invisible I could be, the more I could blend in, the better the pictures. I used the camera as a shield.”
As the confrontation grew violent, Shearer’s camera became a different kind of shield, a way to protect his face, until it was smashed out of his hands by a police officer’s nightstick and he went down under further blows. Photographers up on a police stand saw him and pulled him up to safety, he said.
During the 1972 Attica prison riot in New York, Shearer was the only photographer allowed inside by the inmates. They trusted him because of his record of covering civil rights stories.
Then-Gov. Nelson Rockefeller refused to come to Attica to talk to the inmates and after three days, Russell Oswald, New York Commissioner of Corrections, reluctantly gave the order to retake the prison. In a haunting photo, Shearer captured Oswald’s anguish at making this decision, which led to the deaths of 10 hostages and 29 inmates.
While Shearer experienced the nightmarish chaos of the assault firsthand, he said he didn’t stop to think about being in harm’s way.
“You were always pushing hard to get the pictures,” he said. “There’s a reason that photojournalism is probably a young man’s game because when you’re young, you don’t think about lots of stuff. You think about it as you get older. It was about getting the pictures – how can I get closer, catch them in an unguarded moment.”
Shearer spoke of the new trends in his work.
“I’ll always do a certain amount of reportage, but I find that more and more I’m doing one-of-a kind, like working on glass, with layers embedded in the glass, also stainless steel,” he said.
Asked Monday what advice he would give to a young photographer, his advice was simple: Have a clear picture of what you want your portfolio to look like. Show your strengths in a specific area. Perhaps have several different portfolios, depending on to whom they’re being presented.
And don’t overlook the obvious.
“Photography is a reflexive art,” he said. “That’s why you practice, practice, practice.”