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What We Learned This Week: Remembering John Shearer, Who Captured Iconic Moments

By David Schonauer   Friday July 12, 2019


At age 16, he photographed John F. Kennedy’s funeral.

At the time, John Shearer was a promising young photographer whose work had impressed the photo director of Look magazine. The editor had invited  Shearer to carry his gear at the funeral of the slain president in Washington, D.C. in November, 1963. But when they arrived at St. Matthew’s Cathedral, noted The New York Times recently, the photo director instead handed Shearer a press pass and told him, “Take pictures of people grieving.”

Shearer worked his way up to a reviewing stand and, using a telephoto lens that his father had bought him for the occasion, he captured the president’s young son, John Jr., poignantly saluting his father’s casket. “Other photographers had the picture too. But Mr. Shearer’s was particularly striking,” noted The Times. “It was somewhat overexposed, so that it illuminated Jacqueline Kennedy’s face behind her black veil. Over the years it has become one of the most reproduced images of that memorable moment.”

His success catapulted Shearer, who died on June 23 at age 72, into a long career during which he would photograph images of civil rights marches, race riots, and the funeral of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He joined LOOK magazine at age 20, becoming its second youngest staff photographer. (The youngest had been future film director Stanley Kubrick, who was 18 when he was hired by LOOK in the mid-1940s.) In the mid-1960s, Shearer was one of the few black photographers working for a major publication.

“His race gave him a different sensibility in seeing his subjects and, some said, a greater sense of responsibility in how he portrayed them,” noted The Times. Among the subjects he photographed for LOOK and, later, LIFE magazine, were the Black Panthers, the Ku Klux Klan, and boxers Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. “By 1971, even inmates at the Attica Correctional Facility in western New York knew his name,” noted The Times. “When a group of them took over the prison, they initially allowed admittance to only one still photographer, Mr. Shearer.”

“But his favorite project, according to his wife Marianne, was a story about the South Bronx gang known as the Reapers, which ran in LIFE magazine in 1972. Shearer lived with the gang’s leader for weeks, sleeping on his couch and taking pictures at all hours,” noted Time magazine.

“His photographs really capture the soul of an individual and where they are in the world,” his widow, Marianne, told Time.

Shearer’s father was a cartoonist who created the comic strip Quincy and an art director at the advertising agency BBDO; his mother was a lawyer, civil rights activist and deputy commissioner of social services in Westchester County, N.Y. Learning disabled, Shearer taught himself to read by studying photography books — and learned photography at the same time. His youthful work ended up being exhibited at Grand Central Station, where it caught the eye of LOOK’s photo director, the noted photographer Arthur Rothstein.

It was another photographer, Gordon Parks, who brought Shearer to LIFE, where, notes The Times, they worked side by side.

Here are some of the other photo stories we spotlighted this week:
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1. Finding an Identity ... and 32 Siblings

“It was never a secret in my house that I was conceived with the help of an anonymous sperm donor,” noted Eli Baden-Lasar at The New York Times. In his late teens, Baden-Lasar, a photographer from Oakland, Calif., who will start his sophomore year at Wesleyan University in the fall, grew curious about the idea he might have half-siblings somewhere out in the world, and he decided to go looking for them. The result is a series of portraits of 32 “brothers, sisters and strangers.”


2. A Brit On the Road in America

Over the past century and a half, America in its various guises has been captured by countless photographers, from Carleton Watkins and Dorothea Lange to Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank. Add to that list UK-based Magnum photographer Mark Power, who, we noted yesterday, has spent much of the past decade traveling across the country and has now published Good Morning America — the first of a planned five books that aim to capture a complex and divided country.


3. Thorny Closeups of South Africa Seeds

In order to spread as widely as possible, some varieties of seeds grow sharp thorns and burs that attach themselves to unsuspecting animals or humans. Photographer Dillon Marsh is accustomed to finding these “hitchkiker" seeds on his shoes or clothes during photo excursions through tall grasses of his home country, South Africa. Curious about the details hidden beyond their sharp edges, Marsh began to take macro photographs of these natural objects. The images reveal unnoticed resemblances to faces and skulls, noted Colossal.


4. Daniel Ramos Captures the "Muy Hermosa" of Northern Mexico

Donald Trump warned Americans of "bad hombres" from Mexico. Photographer Daniel Ramos, we noted, went looking for them. Ramos, who grew up in Chicago, spent summers near Monterrey, Mexico, with his grandmother. In 2012, following the death of his mother, he moved to Monterrey "to have some peace to mourn her loss." He also began a project titled "Eres Muy Hermosa," a series of portraits of the working-class people of Northern Mexico. "They are what many imagine a bad hombre looks like," he told us. "But things are not always what they seem." The work was a winner of the Latin American Fotografia 7 contest.


5. Shopkeepers Around the World With their Wares

Photographer Vladimir Antaki  and a friend were wandering along a crowded street in Mexico City a few years ago when, noted Wired, they stumbled upon a hole-in-the-wall sculptor's studio that, except for a dusty radio, wouldn't have looked out of place in Renaissance Italy. Over the past seven years, Antaki has photographed some 250 small establishments, capturing, for instance, a shoeshine man in Paris, a record seller in New York, a mechanic in Beirut, a gramophone repairman in Istanbul, and a vintage-clothes store owner in Montreal.
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At top: From Eli Baden-Lasar

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