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Behind the Lens

Culture Watch

By Tali Jaffe

The image of Marilyn Monroe standing on a subway grate as her dress is blown above her knees--from "The Seven-Year Itch" is so deeply embedded in popular consciousness that it's easy to forget a single stills photographer was responsible for it. The photographer's name was Sam Shaw and he portrayed virtually every major Hollywood star of his day, including Marlon Brando, Paul Newman, Audrey Hepburn, Sidney Poitier, Monroe and countless others.

We spoke to Shaw’s longtime friend and author of “Sam Shaw,” Lorie Karnath, who spent years developing the new book that captures the life and career of this groundbreaking photographer while she was in town speaking at Books & Books Coral Gables.

When did your friendship with Sam Shaw first begin?
In 1982 at a symposium on the arts in Boston.

Was this book a long time in the making?
Yes it is the culmination of almost two decades of conversations, travel and other experiences that I had with Sam. We had always planned to write a book together.

With an archive like his, how did you begin to edit the images for this project?
I wrote many of the stories that I wanted to include, many of these were about specific pictures and this is the way that the key pictures were selected.

How long did the process take?
The conversations and mentoring that Sam provided in the realm of photography took place over about 15 years. It took me a bit over a year to write the book based on the notes of our ongoing dialogue.

How is the book organized?
The book is organized around a number of the themes of what Sam thought were particularly important in the realm of picture taking.

His iconic image of Marilyn on the subway grate is a part of our popular consciousness  How do you think a photographer reaches that kind of iconic image making?

Sam was an artist first that chose the medium of photography for his art. He thought about his pictures as an artist would. He wanted to take pictures that would impact us and captivate us. His photos endure as he took the pictures of one who looks inside his subject.

How did Sam transition from Documentary work to Hollywood -- or did the two paths come together for him?
Sam helped to pioneer the realm of documentary photojournalism. As a creative person he was often asked to serve as artistic director to a number of films. This started his career taking pictures of celebrities. His pictures melded well with the film industry as he took pictures in a kinetic fashion, similar to film. 

How many years did his career span?
Over 50 years

What/who was the subject of his later work? I was one of his subjects. However he never stopped taking pictures of his earlier subjects, landscapes, documentary shots. His scope and talent was vast.

Who do you think (if anyone) is the Sam Shaw of this day?
I see many photographers today who in one way or another remind me of Sam, but two names that come to mind are Stefan Falke and Sam Bassett. These are photographers who are artists first and like Sam they use the camera to realize their art. They have a contemporary cutting edge feel to their work just as Sam did in his time.

Was Sam a private person?
Does the book focus primarily on his work, or do we get to learn a bit more about the lensman behind the images?

Yes he was a private person who never wanted to take credit for all of his accomplishments. He only wished to pursue his art. This is one of the reasons many know his work but not the man. This book helps the reader to learn more about Sam as a person as well as understand the great range and influence of his work.

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