Arts & Minds: ‘Activists and Icons’ and a Chanukah musical

The photographs of Steve Schapiro and Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins.

activists image
Freedom Summer volunteers, Oxford, Ohio, 1964. Photo credit: © Steve Schapiro courtesy of Fahey Klein Gallery.

In Capturing the pulse of Schapiro foto show at Holocaust Museum

Many of the images are instantly recognizable -- from pivotal moments in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s published during the heyday of Life magazine, to Hollywood stars who appeared in some of the most unforgettable films of the 1970s and '80s. Yet if someone were to ask you the name of the photographer responsible for taking these pictures, you might not be able to supply it.

All that will change as you stroll through "Activists and Icons: The Photographs of Steve Schapiro," an exhibition of about 50 examples of the photojournalism of the New York-bred, Chicago-based photographer that is now on view at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, with a companion exhibit, "Civil Rights Era Contact Sheets of Steve Schapiro," at Roosevelt University's new Gage Gallery in the Loop.

Explaining why Schapiro's work fits into the mission of the museum, Arielle Weininger, Chief Curator of Collections and Exhibitions explained: "Beginning in the 1990s, we pushed to broaden the scope of the Illinois Holocaust Museum by also looking at other periods of injustice and hatred, and by teaching people to become activists and upstanders. The Civil Rights era was unquestionably one of those times."

For Schapiro, now 84 (who has lived in Chicago for the past 12 years because, as he put it, "my wife has about 30 cousins here"), it all began at the age of nine when he went to summer camp and began photographing clouds.

"I was fascinated by how an image could be brought to life with chemicals," he said during a recent chat. "And I began to really look at the world, searching for what the great photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson called, 'the decisive moment,' when the subject and design just perfectly come together."

The truth is, Schapiro initially wanted to be a writer. And after graduating from Bard College he went to Europe for six months, came home, wrote a novel about it, and quickly realized, as he quipped, 'that I had written four good pages.'" So, he began focusing on photography, and took lessons in the New York loft of W. Eugene Smith, the fabled World War II photographer who he described as "the consummate printer, extremely eccentric, who would go through 250 sheets to make one perfect print."

"He also taught me about the humanitarian approach to photography, and the power of having two points of interest in a photograph," said Schapiro who, by 1961, was working as a freelancer.

It was the publication in The New Yorker magazine of what would become The Fire Next Time , James Baldwin's 1963 book about race in America, that catapulted Schapiro into a whole new world.

"I had just started freelancing with Life magazine and proposed a story to them about Baldwin that they approved," Schapiro recalled. "I then followed him for six weeks -- into Harlem, and then on to what was my introduction to the South, traveling to North Carolina, Mississippi, and New Orleans."

The Civil Rights Movement became one of Schapiro's defining subjects, as did the political campaigns of Robert F. Kennedy.

"Steve wasn't one of those photographers who would just fly in and out of town to get a story," said Erik Gellman, co-curator of the Schapiro exhibit, and an Associate Professor of African American History at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. "And he always looked beyond the high-profile people like Martin Luther King, Jr., John Lewis, and Muhammad Ali to capture the many anonymous, 'everyman' activists. That's why he insisted that the photo displayed at the entry to this exhibit is of an African American organizer in the South who is talking on a pay phone with his back to the camera, and whose white t-shirt is emblazoned with the words 'Freedom Now.'"

Gellman also devised the "Activists and Icons" title for the museum show which is divided into two parts -- one displaying Schapiro's political work, and the other (following the demise of photojournalism and such magazines as Life , The Saturday Evening Post , and changes at Time and Newsweek ) -- when he turned his camera on Hollywood and the celebrity world, and created memorable portraits of the likes of Barbra Streisand, David Bowie, Andy Warhol, Truman Capote, Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster, Jack Nicholson, and Samuel Beckett, who is Schapiro's favorite.

"The show's title also suggests the phenomenon by which activists become icons and icons become activists," said Gellman. 

As for the exhibit at the Gage Gallery, Gellman explained: "When Steve was shooting in the 1960s -- covering everything from the March on Washington to the Selma-to-Montgomery March -- he would rush all his film to his New York editors. Only recently has he had the time to go over drawers full of contact sheets. And now, on the walls of the Gage, we can see enlarged proofs of images never seen before."

"Activists and Icons: The Photographs of Steve Schapiro" will run through Oct. 27, 2019 at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center. Museum admission is $15. Call (847) 967-4800 or visit ilholocaustmuseum.org.

 "Civil Rights Era Contact Sheets by Steve Schapiro," runs through Dec. 22 at the Gage Gallery of Roosevelt University. Visit Roosevelt.edu.

A new Chanukah musical based on a children's classic

Jewish or not, it is difficult to argue with the universal appeal of the many versions of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol or The Nutcracker that dominate theater and dance stages during the December holiday season.

But what about Chanukah? In many ways it is a theatrically neglected holiday -- one that celebrates its very own tale of a miracle and deserves a fresh and engaging production designed to appeal to both children and adults.

Well, this might just be the moment to celebrate another (minor) miracle, as the always enterprising Strawdog Theatre Company presents the world premiere of Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins , a musical based on the classic 1989 Caldecott Medal-winning children's picture book by Eric Kimmel and illustrator Trina Schart Hyman. 

With a book and adaptation by Michael Daily, music and lyrics by Jacob Combs, and direction by Jacqueline Stone, the show spins around the character of Hershel of Ostropol, the Jewish prankster and folk hero. Hershel uses his exceptional wit to defeat a series of goblins during the course of the eight nights of Chanukah, engaging in a big showdown with the King of the Goblins on the final night.

As it happens, Hershel of Ostropol (1757-1811), was a prominent historic figure in Jewish humor who lived in poverty in Ukraine, but eventually became something of a court jester to the influential and tempestuous Rabbi Boruch of the Hassidic Dynasty of Mezhbizh. 

Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins runs Dec 1, 2019 through Jan. 5, 2019 at Strawdog Theatre Company. For tickets ($20-$25) visit strawdog.org.




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