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A Look Back at David Bowie’s Iconoclastic Path in Newly Discovered Photographs

Master photographer Steve Schapiro’s new book reveal the life and legacy of Bowie as artist, musician, actor, and bon vivant.

Miss Rosenby Miss Rosen
Photo: Bowie in his dressing room  trailer, combing his hair, on the set of The Man Who Fell to Earth, New Mexico, 1975.

It was 1974 when photographer Steve Schapiro got the call. Michael Pittman was on the phone. As Schapiro remembers, “He asked me, ‘Would you like to photograph David Bowie?’ and before he finished the sentence, I said, ‘Yes!’” Bowie was big, a shooting star. Schapiro didn’t know what to expect, but that just made things more interesting.

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A LIFE photographer, Schapiro photographed the greats from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Muhammad Ali to Marlon Brando and Ray Charles. Schapiro’s photographs capture the essence of his subjects, leaving us with a piece of their soul that exists to connect and reconnect us to the profound humanity that lies deep in the flesh. With Bowie, the connection Schapiro made was as good as it gets.

David relaxed at his house in Los Angeles, 1975. I particularly liked his hands in this photo.

David relaxed at his house in Los Angeles, 1975. I particularly liked his hands in this photo.

Their first session together portended greatness to come. Schapiro and his team arrive at nine in the morning to prepare the studio. Bowie arrived at four in the afternoon with flaming red hair and costume changes to boot. As Schapiro remembers, “I expected a real rock and roller. I was amazed to see him. David was calm, eloquent, and intelligent. He was into photography and spirituality. There was such a sense of growth and imagination. David seemed to want to go forward and do something different. He wanted to find new horizons. I was incredibly impressed.”

Their first shoot was significant, speaking to Bowie’s understanding of the continuity of life after death in ways we are just discovering now. At that shoot, Bowie donned a navy shirt and pants, with diagonal white stripes he had freshly painted on them. He had painted his toenails white to match. Then he began to draw on the scrim. Schapiro later learned Bowie was drawing a diagram from the Kabbalah, specifically a Sepihrot, the ten emanations and attributes of God that sustain the universe. Far be it for any of us to know the next time Bowie don that outfit it would be in the music video for “Lazarus,” released the week of his death.

David with cigarette on a break from filming “The Man Who Fell to Earth” in New Mexico, 1975. This became a Rolling Stone cover and a popular image.

David with cigarette on a break from filming “The Man Who Fell to Earth” in New Mexico, 1975. This became a Rolling Stone cover and a popular image.

BOWIE_CVRIt is in death that the circle comes around again, as Schapiro has just released his newest monograph, Bowie (powerHouse Books), an incredible collection of photographs, most of which have never been published before. The photographs, taken in Los Angeles and New Mexico between 1974–76 reveal the magical connection of Bowie and Schapiro’s highly convivial partnership. There is a sense of depth, ingenuity, and innovation that is felt in every photograph. The enigma that is David Bowie has never looked so natural. It is here, in the mélange of changes that Bowie invokes, that we begin to understand the nature of the artist as chameleon, and the path Bowie was on. Schapiro’s photographs capture a garden of Bowie, such as it was, the flowering of his mystical personality as both image and song.

Schapiro remembers, “We were very relaxed with each other. This allowed us to get the best possible pictures. Some people are really smart in what they do and who they are. As a photographer, I want to create an image that captures who the person is and what their spirit is. Many actors get into a character, and that becomes a problem in front of the camera. They don’t know who they are themselves. But with David, it was different. You didn’t know what to expect or what he would do next.”

David seated drawing circles on the background paper and then the Kabbalah Tree of Life diagram on the floor. Los Angeles, 1974.

David seated drawing circles on the background paper and then the Kabbalah Tree of Life diagram on the floor. Los Angeles, 1974.

Bowie features photographs taken throughout this fertile period of the artist’s life, including on-set during The Man Who Fell to Earth, at the Cher show, as well as the album cover shoots for Station to Station and Low. What stands out across locations and over the years is the way in which Bowie understood the photographic medium. His distinctive looks were matched by his mannerisms, effortlessly conveying a range of expression, from natural to theatrical. With Schapiro, Bowie moves smoothly between on and off, always embodying the spirit of the artist as thinker, as conceptual as he is aesthetic.

The rediscovery of these images provides us with another level of understanding about Bowie’s oeuvre, as well as insight into the ways in which he crafted “Blackstar,” his going away gift to the world.

All Photos: ©Steve Schapiro, from Bowie, published by powerHouse Books.

Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.