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Photographer Steve Schapiro delves into David Bowie's spiritual side

Celebrated photographer Steve Schapiro has had the opportunity to shoot many famous faces over his career, but few stand out in his mind like David Bowie, whom Schapiro first met for a photo session at his Los Angeles studio in 1974. "Bowie had a very strong sense of personal identity and he had a very strong sense of knowing exactly who he was and where he was going," Schapiro told CBS News. That photo session is detailed in a new collection, "Bowie: Photographs by Steve Schapiro," released Tuesday.

What was the atmosphere of the shoot like when you first met with David Bowie?

He had this reputation of being a rock and roll star with many elaborate costumes, being a very active performer and a very intense performer. I did not know what to expect when he arrived. We had set up in the morning, at 9 o'clock, and he came at 4 p.m. There was no entourage, there was just this person who was calm, really over-intelligent. We talked more about spiritual things than rock and roll or the weather. I was very impressed with the fact that he understood what he wanted to do with the shoot and was very specific in his mind about it.

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"Bowie: Photographs by Steve Schapiro" is available now. Click through our gallery to see never-before-published excerpts from the book. Steve Shapiro/Courtesy Powerhouse Books


What was it that he wanted to do with it?

He borrowed a shirt -- a sort of blue cropped-neck shirt -- from one of my assistants and went into the dressing room, and then he painted those diagonal white stripes on all his clothes -- on the shirt and his pants, and he actually painted his toes white also. And then he proceeded to come out, and we had set up background paper. He started to draw circles on the wall and a question mark, and then finally he drew on the paper on the floor the diagram for the Kabbalah's tree of life, which did not know as much about at that point. So there was a very spiritual reason for the start of this shoot, in his mind. He had brought a lot of outfits with him, but this was something he'd basically created there. And of course this is the outfit that's shown up again in the "Lazarus" video.

What was your reaction when you saw the outfit again in the video?

It was an amazing experience in the sense that he was not a person who was prone to wear the same outfit twice. And suddenly this outfit -- which I'd photographed in 1974 -- was appearing in the "Lazarus" video. All of it was extremely emotional to me in the sense that it was a continuity from this shoot that we had done in '74, and suddenly here again he's wearing this outfit which obviously had much more significance to him than I could've imagined.

How did Bowie compare to other subjects you've had as a photographer?

I've photographed an enormous amount of celebrities and an enormous amount of political people. Particularly with people who are actors, very often they become the person that they're characterizing internally and externally in a very strong way, and then when you put them in front of a camera they don't know quite who they personally are. They know who their characters are, but they're confused as to who they should be or what image they should project in front of the camera. Bowie had a very strong sense of personal identity and he had a very strong sense of knowing exactly who he was and where he was going. Bowie had a very strong sense, to me, that he was a person who had an enormous sense of growth and of transition. It seemed to me that he developed a character, he developed a persona, and then when he felt that he had done that he didn't necessarily want to continue it. He wanted to move on to something new.

Do you have a favorite image of Bowie?

I was doing a show in Chicago on Andy Warhol, the Velvet Underground and David Bowie. I put up the Bowie pictures -- many of which are in the book -- and we looked at it and I had the feeling that something was just missing. I went back to my transparencies and found this image which had been totally overlooked. It had never really been looked at. It was the image with the blue circles behind him. It's in the book. And we made it into a 30 by 40 print for the show, and then the day before the show we decided it really should be bigger, so we made it into a 40 by 50. It was 8 o'clock at night the day before the show was supposed to open, and I called up my printer in Chicago and asked him if he could do it. We pulled it off, and it was absolutely the best print in the show. It got the most attention of anything in the show. I would say that's probably one of my absolute favorite pictures in the book and of Bowie. Sometimes you can't tell why a picture is iconic -- it's just something about it that really works. Even looking at it, you don't know why you really, really like it.

View photos from "Bowie: Photographs by Steve Schapiro" in our gallery.

"Bowie: Photographs by Steve Schapiro" was released April 12, 2016 bypowerHouse Books.

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