It's not just one anecdote that highlights the career of Bill Shapiro, former editor-in-chief of LIFE magazine. It’s a multitude. A man who’s been living and breathing photography for decades.
LIFE Magazine was a staple of American culture for decades, bringing iconic images to kitchen tables across the country. For nearly 10 years, Bill Shapiro was at the helm of LIFE magazine and then LIFE.com, reimagining the way the world looked at visual storytelling. Even though the magazine no longer exists, Bill is still very much dedicated to keeping photographic storytelling alive: through his articles, his interviews with legendary as well as up-and-coming photographers, and through his curatorship for galleries and photography platforms.
Hey, Bill, I don’t think I’ve ever met someone who’s more excited about visual storytelling and photography than you are. Whether it’s an in-depth piece about the great Gordon Parks or an article about average people with average cameras, you write about other people’s photography with such a passion and admiration that it doesn’t surprise me you ended up being the editor-in-chief of LIFE magazine. Was that always in the stars for you?
I’ve always been attracted to visual storytelling. In fact, in my early teenage years, I used to go to a lot of concerts. At some point, I started bringing my camera and taking pictures of bands like the Grateful Dead. I wanted to capture moments and share those with other fans. So after a concert, I’d go home to develop the images and then try to sell them in the parking lot the next time the band came to town. I really enjoyed giving people a chance to bring home these iconic memories. So yeah I’ve always been interested in sharing visual stories with an audience, but even when I was working in the fabled Time & LIFE building, the thought never crossed my mind that I might one day work at LIFE.
So then how did you make your way to LIFE?
When I was working at Time Inc., I was always creating and publishing these visually-driven stories. The company’s top editor noticed that and when the decision was made to relaunch LIFE, he asked me to apply for the job. I was thrilled, of course, and terrified, and also surprised because I didn’t know much about celebrity culture, which had always been a big part of LIFE’s formula. And LIFE is really where my deep education in photography began. I studied hundreds of old issues, wandered through the archives, talked to many of the great LIFE photographers. As you can imagine, it was a dream working for such an iconic brand because in its heyday, Life magazine not only broke many huge stories—like being the first to publish the Zapruder film of the Kennedy assassination—but it opened white America’s eyes to racial injustice in South, and along the way really taught people about the incredible power of pictures.
After relaunching LIFE magazine you went on to be the founding editor of LIFE.com. Did that change the way you look at photography?
Absolutely and in more ways than I can count. But for starters, I really came to value images that had been forgotten and lost to time. As soon as I’d assembled my editorial team, we started exploring through the entire LIFE archive — and there were something like 15 million images. Our research turned up many unpublished but amazing stories. My first thought was: We MUST publish these so that the world can see this treasure!
Why would there be unpublished stories?
Back in the day, a photographer would be sent out on a job, and maybe spend three weeks or more with a subject. They’d take hundreds and hundreds of pictures, but only a handful would eventually be published. So there were tons of never-before-seen outtakes. But there were also stories that, for whatever reason, were simply killed and shelved. Going into these archives, we couldn’t believe what we saw. We found folders full of incredible photos that never made it to the magazine and that hadn’t been touched in 50 years.
Seems like a real treasure hunt, finding all those untold stories. Do you have an example of an article that never got published but that you ended up posting?
One of the most memorable stories featured photos taken the day Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed. By chance, LIFE Magazine had a young photographer 200 miles away from the scene. He was one of the first photographers to actually get to the motel and he found it almost deserted; people assumed that the shooter was still out there. When he got there, he found the brother of the motel owner sweeping Dr. King’s blood into a glass jar. There were also intimate pictures of Dr. King’s suitcase, still open, with his shirt and his bible visible. For whatever reason, the magazine’s editor at the time decided not to run any of those images, perhaps because he was afraid of the public’s reaction. We found it to be an incredibly important story to tell so we tracked down the photographer—Henry Groskinsky— and interviewed him for our story. It went viral almost immediately.
What I like about you and how you talk about photography and visual storytelling is that you really are the narrator, putting the spotlight on the artist and the art itself. Where do you think the urge to create these platforms for photographers comes from?
I’ve always liked to share visually appealing and interesting stories. I think the power of photography is still underestimated and that photos can move the world and move individuals deeply. It’s an international language that we all speak and it can serve as a high-powered empathy machine. But sometimes photographers can make amazing images that don’t get seen because they don’t know how to distribute them, or don’t have relationships with editors, or sometimes don’t know how to edit their work for non-photographers. I feel like I can help them do that. And also because I’ve noticed that some photographers find it hard to talk about their own images.
That’s true, and the way you write about artists is very appealing to a larger audience, I think.
Well, I sort of hate it when people write about photography in an academic and inaccessible way. It just leaves a lot of people out of the conversation, which I think is unfortunate because photography is such a democratic medium. I just want to help people who may not have a ton of experience reading photographs to understand some of the ideas behind the pictures — without all the fancy art-speak language around it. To me, that really only addresses a very niche audience, whereas I think making photography accessible is going to bring more people together.
You’re also very active on social media, using Instagram as a platform to shine a spotlight on sometimes under-the-radar artists.
I like showing photographers who are very talented but, for whatever reason, aren't getting the love that they deserve. For me, it’s also a great way to start a conversation around topics that inspire me. The world becomes smaller by making it bigger. You know, it’s a fun way to build a community and interact with an audience that’s interested in the same things that I’m interested in. If used in the right way, Instagram can be a great tool for photographers and for fans of photography.
At LIFE, you were documenting these real-world moments to share with the magazine’s audience, and now, at Homecoming, you’re sharing photographer Lisa Sorgini, who is also very much about sharing the raw truth, but more in a romantic way. What appeals to you about her photography?
What I love about Lisa’s photography is that it tells the story of every mother, every parent, and every child. One of the ways she does that is by not showing the face of the child or parent, so that the person in the frame becomes all of us, in a way. Her pictures carry a distinct sense of timelessness, love and sensuality. To me, they feel like memory itself; they bring me back to a time when my kids were little, which was a time of so many emotions — and Lisa perfectly captures the full, sweeping sense of those feelings. Yes, the photos depict motherhood, childhood, parenthood, but they’re also about the most intimate connections between people. Her photography reminds me of the warmth of home.
She makes these very mundane images feel almost religious.
Absolutely. I think that’s because of the way she frames her subject and her use of light. She makes the ordinary extraordinary, and it’s good to look at life, and parenthood in particular, like that sometimes.
Why did you pick this particular image of Lisa’s for your home?
I just love this picture. For me, it conjures up the world of childhood, the sense of discovery — “Dad, look at this flower!” — and the wonder of a child’s imagination, which can turn a garden bloom into a character in a wild puppet show about dragons who eat pizza, or whatever. There’s a sense, for me, of a whole world unfolding in this tiny moment — and it’s a moment that the child will never remember but that might hold some magic for the parent. It’s the kind of magic I’m always trying to hold onto. It’s also one of the first of Lisa’s images that I came upon and it just tugged at my heart because I remember those incredible days with my kids, days I thought would never end.
What does home mean to you?
Saying “It’s the pictures on the walls of our house that make it a home” would be too much of a cliche, but you know what? It’s also true. Also, raising a family in an old turn-of-the-century building in Brooklyn, the other thing that has come to feel like home to me are our floors. Our old, honey-colored wood floors. People have been walking on these floors for a hundred years, and my kids have run, bled, cried, laughed, spilled, and played on these floors for hours. You can see the marks of life on them.
Again snapshots of life documented, not in pictures but in wood.
That’s why I love New York so much, all the stories and memories of the past are right at your feet. In subways, buildings, street signs, the people. There’s a sort of ballet in the New York streets you don’t get anywhere else.
What’s your favorite place in New York, artwise?
I always go back to Chelsea. It’s where I bought my first piece of art many years ago and it’s where some of the great galleries are located. Definitely check out Jack Shainman Gallery, the Aperture gallery, and obviously MoMA, in Midtown, always has some great photography. But in the last year or two, some amazing small galleries have also popped up in Tribeca.
What was your first art find?
A couple of years after I first moved to New York, I landed a job where I was able to have a little pocket money. One day, I was walking in Chelsea, past all these expensive galleries where I couldn’t afford a thing, and I saw this little pop-up gallery. This was before I had kids and before I knew anything about photography but, while looking around, a small hand-painted image by the Dutch photographer Sebastiaan Bremer jumped out at me. It showed two little girls twisting and spinning with painted dots swirling around them. To me, that image felt like childhood memories and nostalgia. I didn’t know at the time it was a Bremer image — I just bought it because I loved it, which, I think, is the reason to buy a picture — but a couple of years ago I looked him up, found his studio, and sent him a snapshot of the picture. Coincidentally, he was also living in Brooklyn so we went for coffee. It kind of shows the connective power of photography.
imgs: Ben Rayner