The view of Lake Katonah from John Shearer’s home is picture-perfect. And one wouldn’t expect anything less from Shearer, an award-winning photographer whose gripping images have graced the pages of Look and LIFE magazines, among many other publications.
Shearer and his wife, fundraising professional Marianne Shearer, moved into their 1,800-square-foot cottage-style home in Katonah back in 1990. The two were living in a two-bedroom rented apartment in Brooklyn Heights that they loved, but decided it was time to invest in a home. “We looked around up here but just weren’t feeling it,” Shearer says. “Our realtor told us she had one more place she wanted us to see. I remember seeing the lake as we rose up the hill, and when we walked into the living room I thought, ‘This is pretty cool.’”
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Built in 1929, the Shearers’ house is one of the first of about 100 homes that were constructed around Lake Katonah. The original community, incorporated as the Lake Katonah Club, was marketed as summer residences for New York City dwellers, but now has mostly year-round residents. The rural setting made the home the ideal location for the couple to raise their two children, now ages 22 and 25, who loved to play in the surrounding woods and by the lake. “It’s really a Rockwellian neighborhood; there’s something quite magical about it,” says Marianne. “You can canoe, fish, and swim in the lake, and there’s even a beach.”
The living room, with its beamed ceiling and wide-plank floor, is John and Marianne Shearer’s favorite place in the house. It is filled with family heirlooms and John’s photographs.
The couple’s house is typical of the early homes built around the lake, with a large fireplace and cathedral ceiling in the living room, beautiful wide-plank wooden floors, and beamed ceilings. The Shearers spend a great deal of time in their living room, which they have both helped decorate with beautiful family antiques and Shearer’s photographs. One of the room’s highlights is an elegant mahogany sideboard inherited from Marianne’s grandparents. “We have a small house but we’ve got great storage,” she says. “I once served dinner on gold-leaf plates and my friend asked, ‘Where do you put all this?’ The answer is the sideboard.” Oriental rugs from Marianne’s grandparents grace the floors, while a pair of barrel-back chairs by the fireplace came from her parents and a leather club chair was a present from Shearer’s family.
On the living-room walls are a number of photographs that Shearer has taken over the years, including the iconic image that he shot at John F. Kennedy’s funeral in 1963. Shearer, who received his first Brownie camera from his father when he was 8 and was winning photo contests by the time he was 12, was asked by Look magazine photographer Arthur Rothstein to assist him at Kennedy’s funeral. Sixteen at the time, Shearer was given press tags and told to “take as many pictures as you can of people grieving.” The photo he took of the Kennedy family in mourning and John-John saluting his father’s coffin was among the most widely run images of that sad day in American history. In 1966, Shearer became the youngest staff photographer hired at Look, and he was the second African-American staff photographer at LIFE (the first was Gordon Parks, who was a good friend of Shearer’s father and Shearer’s mentor when he was growing up in Greenburgh).
The Shearers’ each have their own bookshelves. John’s side includes photography books and copies of his own Billy Jo Jive children’s book series. Also on display are some of his old cameras and a gas mask he used while covering riots and protests.
Marianne has convinced her husband to take down some of his more jarring (yet fascinating) photos, including pictures taken of the Attica prison uprising, a Latino street gang in the South Bronx, antiwar protests in Washington, and the 1971 Mohammed Ali-Joe Frazier fight. They’ve been replaced by more meditative shots of Block Island, the Brooklyn Bridge, and Utah’s Arches National Park. Above the fireplace is a striking photograph of an orchid, one of the more recent creations in Shearer’s nature series.
Shearer’s photos also adorn the walls of the dining room, sitting room, and hallways. They are the perfect complement to the couple’s traditional furnishings, from the mahogany dining room table that the Shearers bought at an antiques store in New Canaan to the accompanying captain’s chairs that belonged to Marianne’s grandparents. Other family heirlooms include the butterfly leaf side table and silver service in the dining room, a set of 18th-century pewter goblets, and an intricately patterned floral quilt in their master bedroom, dating back to the Civil War era. (Marianne’s family on her father’s side dates back to the 1600s in Virginia, and her great, great grandfather was a Confederate soldier.)
In the sunroom, which Shearer now uses as his study, there is yet another perfect view of the lake. As he sits there and reminisces about how the photography industry has changed with the advent of the digital camera, he says, “My newer pieces are more abstract and I’m also expanding what photography can do by printing on metal and glass, and making one-of-a-kind pieces.” He adds, “I do miss the darkroom, but I’m excited about all the new things that can be done now.”
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