John Shearer has been a photographer, writer, director, lecturer and professor; a true renaissance man, fashioned in the mold of Gordon Parks. He was the second black staff photographer at LIFE magazine, Gordon Parks being the first!
John Shearer was born and raised in New York City. He attended Rochester Institute of Technology and School of Visual Arts. Shearer was one of the youngest staff photographers ever hired by a major publication when LOOK hired him at the age of 17.
He has won 175 national photography awards. His work has been exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, MOMA, and the Whitney Museum. – Life Picture Collection.
On Staff with LOOK 1966-1969, John covered civil rights and the race riots of the 1960’s. He was hired by LIFE in 1968, where he worked as a staff photographer.
One of Shearer’s classic stories for LIFE was his coverage of the first Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier fight, “Fight of the Century.” Among Shearer’s most important stories was his coverage of the Attica Prison riots in 1972. Shearer was the only photographer allowed inside the prison during the assault by New York law enforcement authorities.
During the 1970’s, Shearer authored a number of children’s and young adult books including I Wish I Had an Afro (1970), a nonfiction essay exploring the challenges of rearing an African American boy in poverty. John and his dad Ted Shearer were also the creative geniuses behind the Billy Jo Jivebook series and animated cartoon segment that aired on Sesame Street.
My work with landscapes began when I was hired as a staff photographer by Look Magazine. As a 17-year-old kid from New York City assigned to take pictures of the beautiful American Southwest…I was dazzled about the expansive space and light like none I had ever seen before.
Mysterious rock formations and desert vistas, visible for up to 50 miles in all directions, changed color throughout the day. Soon afterwards, though, I was covering conflict in mid-20th century America, especially the civil rights movement. As a photojournalist, my job was to capture the pain and frustration of the times, but I occasionally sought relief by stepping away to shoot something of beauty, to take a picture that didn’t boil with hatred. Photographing a landscape, for example, could take my time to frame the picture with care, then wait for the light to be just perfect: a completely different experience from my tempestuous journalistic assignments. Yet there was a bond between the two different kinds of image-making: both were representations, or documentary photographs.
At the time, Eugene Smith, one of the great Life Magazine photographers of the late 50s and early 60s, was one of my heroes. As a student of his at the School of Visual Arts, I fell in love with the vibrant intensity of his pictures. From him, I learned to burn and dodge each of my landscape prints with great care, all of them revealing his influence upon my way of seeing. Life, however, is a journey and eventually, I started thinking about landscapes in a new way of my own making — less representational, less literal. This shift happened after I first took pictures some years ago in Stonington, Maine. These fog-filled images only suggest what lies beyond. Subtle, hidden, these landscapes provide more of an impression or feeling than a clear representation of a lighthouse, an island, a sailboat.
In a sense, the pictures are a documentation of my personal reaction to time and space but are no longer rooted in a specific place.