The Kid Stays in the Picture: The Legendary Life of John Shearer

Since he was a teenager, photographer John Shearer has captured America at its most volatile — and beautiful.

Photos courtesy of John Shearer

Since he was a teenager, photographer John Shearer has captured America at its most volatile — and beautiful. We sit down with the Katonah resident.

A dusty old gas mask hangs from a doorknob in John Shearer’s home studio in Katonah. It’s the one he used to pack up with his camera gear when heading out to cover news stories where the authorities might start lobbing tear gas into a restless crowd. Back then, he was a young photojournalist on the front lines of social unrest, in the mid-’60s through the early ’70s, capturing scenes of riot and chaos for the great pictorial magazines LOOK and LIFE. Sometimes he didn’t bring the mask — he didn’t think he’d need it, or he wouldn’t have room among all the camera bodies, lenses, and film canisters. Instead, he’d stick pieces of cotton into a small bottle of vinegar and tuck the bottle into his shirt pocket. If the gas started flying, he’d stuff the cotton in his nostrils; the vinegar fumes counteracted the gas fumes, so he could see well enough to keep taking pictures.
His recent sunflower series turns the flower into an object of drama and beauty.

Related: Video: The Home Decorations Of An Award-Winning Photographer

He learned this life hack from an older, more experienced reporter while covering civil rights protests in the South. It was photojournalism’s golden pre-digital age, when a driven 20-something could be lucky enough to get paid to travel to a divided country, on an expense account, and catch its soul on film. Too focused to be afraid, working too quickly to dwell on the dangers, Shearer suffered broken cameras and broken bones but kept on shooting. At the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, a cop tore off his press badge and beat him to the ground, breaking his collarbone. He kept shooting. At the 1971 antiwar riots in Washington, DC, he augmented his vinegar and cotton with a mouth guard and a blanket under his shirt, to protect from body blows. “I used my camera as a shield.” He kept shooting.

Shearer’s iconic photo essay of the Reapers, a South Bronx street gang run by Eddie Cuevas, ran in LIFE magazine in 1972.

By the mid-1970s, both LOOK and LIFE had folded, killed by the immediacy of TV. Shearer reinvented himself as a commercial and fine-art photographer, a college lecturer, and a creative director. He started Shearer Visuals in White Plains, where he produced corporate reports for IBM, Standard Oil, and others. He and his father, the cartoonist Ted Shearer, collaborated on a series of children’s books starring a kid detective named Billy Jo Jive, which became animated spots for Sesame Street. Shearer started teaching at the Columbia University School of Journalism, helping to turn a photography club into a full-fledged part of the curriculum. In the 1990s, he and his wife, Marianne, launched a custom-publishing company called Image Partners Philanthropy Advisors. At 70, Shearer still goes to work, five days a week, in his home studio, “writing and making pictures.” His latest commission is a first for him: sunflowers photographed for the walls of Winston restaurant in Mount Kisco.

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Dapper in a navy blazer and polished shoes, he clicks through the images on a large desktop monitor. “There are so many corny pictures of sunflowers; I was trying to look at them in new ways,” he explains. His eye finds intensity and drama where you don’t expect — not unlike the pictures that made him famous decades earlier.

Shearer obliges a request to look at the “old pictures,” the ones that the Katonah Art Center calls “part of the American iconography”: Muhammad Ali taunting Joe Frazier through a window before their “Fight of the Century,” in March 1971 (“Ali was quiet until someone came into the room”); a black activist unjustly imprisoned for rape in Alabama, his haunted eyes staring out a hole in the cell door; civil rights marchers in the South, defiant faces under a threatening sky; a gang member’s funeral.

Shearer captured Muhammad Ali taunting Joe Frazier as they trained for “The Fight of the Century,” in 1971.

“The gangs story was important to me,” Shearer says. In 1972, he pitched LIFE on a photo essay on urban gangs. Then he had to find one to agree. He found the Reapers, a Latino street gang in the South Bronx. Shearer is the kind of laid-back guy even gang leaders warm up to, and he spent six weeks trailing head Reaper “Fast Eddie” Cuevas, capturing every aspect of gang life — not just the fights and funerals but the neighborhood cleanups, the fatherless families, the dreams and aspirations. “I used natural light and color film to better capture the feeling of the times.” It ran multiple spreads in LIFE. The Association of Magazine Photographers named Shearer its Photographer of the Year for 1972.

Awards aside, what John Shearer learned to say from the front lines of social injustice was that while the magazines liked “sensational,” he knew there were two sides to every story, even if both sides didn’t make it to the page. He learned that life is rarely black and white, and even a gang leader can have a good side. “Eddie was a magnificent guy, a father figure to these guys. He wanted to be an artist. What I saw was a young man with talent and potential who needed a break.”

If ever a young man had talent and potential, it was John Shearer. And he got a break. Several of them, thanks to a series of mentors, starting with his father.

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Shearer was born in New York City in 1947. His father, Ted, got a job as a creative director at legendary ad agency BBDO, secured a mortgage and moved the family to Greenburgh in the mid-1950s. Parkway Gardens was an enclave for middle-class black families, many of them in the arts. The Shearers fit right in: Ted went on to create the comic strip Quincy, about a kid in Harlem, one of the first nationally syndicated cartoons with a black lead character. Shearer’s mother, Phyllis, served as deputy commissioner of social services for Westchester County; a photo of her and Robert Kennedy has pride of place in the studio. “She was the brains,” he says with a chuckle.

Ted Shearer gave John his first Brownie camera when he was 8 years old. They built a darkroom in the basement. Photography changed John’s life “in many ways,” he recalls. “I was really shy as a kid, and I couldn’t read very well. Today they would probably call it dyslexia. I’d go to the library and look at books on how to develop film. I read them over and over again, and all of a sudden, gee, guess what? Reading’s not so bad. That also got me interested in storytelling, making picture stories.”

A haunting image of a civil-rights activist who was imprisoned for five years in Alabama on false charges.

In 1959, at age 13, John sold his first original print for a whopping $200. (He put it toward a new Pentax camera.) The buyer, a dentist, belonged to the Westchester Clubman, a men’s social club for black professionals cofounded by Ted, who was hosting a meeting at their house when the transaction took place. Another Clubman and Parkways Garden resident took notice. Gordon Parks was the first black photographer for LIFE magazine, a charismatic Renaissance man famous for images that ranged from gritty urban life to Marilyn Monroe. He drove a snazzy green Jaguar and would later go on to direct the 1971 film Shaft. When Parks offered to critique the kid’s portfolio, Shearer was thrilled. It didn’t go as expected: Of 15 photos, “He tore them all up,” Shearer recalls. “I ended up with one. What Gordon was trying to get me to think about is that you show only your best work. I kept coming back, wanting to show him that I can do this — I really wanna to do this; that was my dream, to be a photographer for LOOK or LIFE magazine.” Parks invited Shearer to assist him on shoots, which is how he met Malcolm X (“truly amazing”).

Meanwhile, Ted Shearer was also pushing his son to succeed. “As a young black kid, I really had to push hard, see people, get them interested in me.” He freelanced for the old Reporter Dispatch in White Plains and started sweeping the prestigious Scholastic Photography Awards. In 1962, when he was a high-school senior at Woodlands High School, Shearer had a one-man show at the Kodak Gallery in Grand Central Station. That’s where Arthur Rothstein, director of photography for LOOK magazine and a first-rate photojournalist himself, first saw Shearer’s work. Impressed, Rothstein invited the kid to assist him at LOOK. After graduating from Woodlands High in 1964, Shearer enrolled in the Rochester Institute of Technology, juggling classes and visits home to work at the magazine.

After President Kennedy’s assassination, in November 1963, Rothstein took Shearer with him to Washington, DC, to photograph the funeral. Ted bought his son a 200-mm lens, for close-ups, as a gift. Once on-scene, Rothstein tossed Shearer a press badge and told him to “take pictures of people grieving.” Shearer says he was lucky that day, but it was savvy and instinct that moved him through the crowds and up onto the receiving stand across from the church where a veiled Jackie Kennedy and her two children were standing. With the telephoto lens his dad gave him, he clicked the shutter just as 2-year-old John-John saluted his father’s casket.

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Shearer took this iconic image at President John F. Kennedy’s funeral when he was a 17-year-old assistant for LOOK magazine.

“A moment later, I was pulled from the stand by a member of the Secret Service.” He fell to the ground, cracking the new lens, “but I had my picture.” Shearer hadn’t quite mastered his new lens, and the negative was overexposed, but even then he got a break: “Because it was overdeveloped slightly, it produced a negative that did wonderful things with the highlights and the shadows,” particularly on Mrs. Kennedy’s grieving face. Other photographers took similar images that day, but Shearer’s has become iconic. That split-second exposure of chemicals, light, and timing launched him into the elite, and very competitive, ranks of photojournalism. He left college and devoted himself to his passion.

In 1966, LOOK hired Shearer full-time. At just 20, he was the longtime publication’s second-youngest staff photographer ever. (Director Stanley Kubrick, who was hired in 1946 at age 18, was the youngest.)

In his three years at LOOK, Shearer’s range was broad, from Japanese origami to Joan Rivers and Tiny Tim to the funeral of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. He practiced becoming  “invisible.” Gordon Parks had taught him that: Get lost in the moment. Make the subject forget you’re there. Come back with the picture. This became his mantra, yet his race made him more visible, not less. “I was told so many times: ‘You can’t possibly do this; you can’t travel in the South. How are you going to do your stories? There’s no way.’” When covering civil rights marches in the South, he always went with a white photographer. “We’d shoot with our backs to each other, so we could see who was coming from either direction.”

“As a young man, John had a huge afro,” says Marianne Shearer. “The magazines sent him into incendiary situations because they wanted the reaction.”

In the mid-’60s, his editors sent him to photograph the White Citizens Council. “I didn’t know exactly what it was until I got down there.” It was a white-supremacist group who didn’t take kindly to having a young black man take their picture. The response: “Angry, crazy people. During that story I started to realize there was a reason they sent me down there.” But he rose to the occasion. “You didn’t think about your personal safety; it was just, ‘Get the pictures.’”

Shearer was assigned to cover Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral in Atlanta for LOOK magazine.

In 1969, Shearer left LOOK for LIFE (“That was the pinnacle”). This time, he was the youngest staff photographer in the publication’s history and only the second black one (Gordon Parks was the first, in 1948). By 1970, Shearer was traveling 25 days a month on assignment. He didn’t forget Westchester, however: His first children’s book, I Wish I Had an Afro, chronicled an African American boy’s political coming of age in Greenburgh’s poor Fairview neighborhood. Shearer’s second book, Little Man in the Family, contrasted the lives of a white suburban kid and a brown city kid.

“John was in an unusual position,” says Ossining resident Alan Haywood, an old friend. He credits a photo workshop Shearer taught around that time, at Woodlands High School, with making him a photographer. “[John] was able to experience some of what the people he was photographing experienced, versus the white journalists who lived outside that life. He didn’t come from a poor family, but he could relate to the people, and they could relate to him. That’s why the prisoners at Attica let him in.”

On September 9, 1971, inmates took over part of Attica Correctional Facility, near Buffalo. They took 49 hostages and demanded better treatment. Hundreds of reporters and photographers were milling around outside, in the rain, but only Shearer was allowed inside Attica’s walls. “They were familiar with my work, and they knew I would tell their story,” he explains. “I spent four days in there, shooting the whole time. Didn’t sleep a lot.” He spent most of that time in the cellblock, which “had a hard smell, one of unwashed flesh.” He was down to 15 rolls of film when a fine mist of CS gas began raining down from above, dropped by hovering helicopters. “They just started firing into this mass of gas.” He hadn’t brought his mask, but he had the vinegar and cotton balls. By the time state troopers stormed the prison to end the siege, 10 hostages and 33 inmates lay dead. The story ran 10 pages in the September 24, 1971 issue of LIFE, though not on the cover: That belonged to the Jackson 5.

“John was at a time in his life when he felt invincible,” says Marianne. “He didn’t have to worry about anyone other than himself and making sure he had film.”

His recent sunflower series turns the flower into an object of drama and beauty.

These days, John Shearer has a family and a lovely home on a lake and a hard drive full of a life’s work. He was almost 40 when he married, in 1986, because Gordon Parks had taught him another thing, says Marianne, who was director of admissions at Columbia when they met: “Gordon advised John to put his nose to the grindstone and do his work and not think about getting married.” They have two kids in their 20s: Alison, a musician, and Will, a printmaker and painter. Two years ago, Shearer mounted a show at Katonah’s Oak & Oil gallery, featuring three generations of his artwork. “I just wish my dad had lived to see it.”

Despite health issues, Shearer still pushes himself, experimenting with new subjects and techniques. (“Photoshop is just another darkroom.”) Sunflowers. Abstract photographs he calls Light Paintings, inspired by the words of J.M.W. Turner, taken right out of the window of his studio. There are a few projects in the hopper: photos of elderly women who survived World War II, for a book a friend is writing, and a book about faith, commissioned by the Catholic Archdiocese, which morphed into a broader project about faith. “It made me start to think about my faith, which is a good thing,” he concedes, without elaborating. He refuses to overthink his motivations, what he may or may not have learned along the way: “I didn’t have that much self-
reflection about what I was doing; it’s just what I did. Come back with a story. Come back with a good story.”

When veteran journalist Dana White isn’t writing for Westchester Magazine, she is the village historian for Ossining.

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