Katonah’s John Shearer has a local focus
Though John Shearer is renowned far and wide as a photographer of the American civil rights movement and once declared “Black America is my beat,” his focus these days is mostly local.
At age 17, Shearer took the picture of John Kennedy, Jr. saluting, in front of his mother Jacqueline, uncle Robert, and his big sister, Caroline, at the funeral of his father, the late president John F. Kennedy. Working with Look and then Life magazines in the 60s and 70s, Shearer produced a relatively new brand of black-and-white photojournalism he calls “reportorial” that seemed to expose and express the tensions and fault lines underlying the American civil rights movement. His photo of a crowd at the Martin Luther King funeral, his embedded coverage of the Reapers street gang, his shot of Ali taunting Frazier before the “Fight of the Century,” and his work as the only journalist permitted inside the prison during the 1971 Attica uprising, together form such an iconic body of art, that Shearer is famous by all measures, even if you never really new his name or couldn’t pick him out of a crowd.
Institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art have highlighted Shearer’s work, but he’s most excited about being featured in “American Moments: Photographs by John Shearer,” an exhibition at the Neuberger Museum of Art, at SUNY Purchase, this fall. “Neuberger is a gem, I’ve always wanted to exhibit there, and I hope showing my work touches a lot of nerves in terms of what’s going on right now. I love being able to do a major show like this right in my own backyard and for mostly a local or regional audience. You know, friends never get to see your stuff.” Shearer says contentedly.
When Shearer explains his photography, he points out that he’s “really always been a printmaker” and says “even in the modern day of digital imaging, I can get the dark rich blacks and toned whites, and the shadowing, and the textures to achieve the affect I want.” Nowadays, he uses a Nikon D800 and an Epson printer, and has most recently been exploring the play of light in pictures shot through the prism of his window which he says are inspired by J.M.W. Turner. But, Shearer’s most talkative about how his full-color close-ups of sunflowers are the trademark display at Winston in Mt. Kisco and adds, “I received a generous commission for that. It’s not like I’m trying to sell pictures through a local restaurant, I did it because I like that everybody around here, my neighbors, get to see my work, and I get a special little thrill when I go into Winston for dinner and see it there.”
Shearer’s roots are in Greenburgh. He attributes much of his success to an art teacher at Woodlands High School, and to his mentor, Gordon Parks, the legendary photographer who preceded Shearer as the first black at Look, who was, fortuitously, a neighbor, and a member of the Westchester Clubmen, a social club for black professionals which Shearer’s dad, Ted, had co-founded. When it was time for Shearer and his wife, Marianne, to find a home to raise their kids, Shearer says “I was comfortable in Westchester, I was looking for an excellent school district with a particularly good arts department, like I had, and then I fell in love with this house right by Lake Katonah.”
Shearer reminisces, “Some of my best times have been with the kids growing up swimming and boating out on the lake. And we have this view 365. It’s a treasure. We like that around this neighborhood it’s economically mixed and there’s not a lot of snooty folks.
And I think my kids did pretty well here. My daughter, Alison, plays a pretty mean sax, she plays in a couple of different bands, and she’s in business consulting restaurants, and my son, Will, is a successful printmaker and artist like me. So I guess the arts and education at John Jay High School paid off.”
Shearer likes to go for walks at Ward Pound Reservation, stop in at Katonah’s Oak & Oil gallery, and get out to events in town, but at 71 he is starting to slow down. “I’m happy,” he says, “and, again, look at this view. We love this house. Someday I might even get to take grandkids out on the lake. Katonah’s been good for us, and Westchester is my home.”
LOOKING BACK More than 40 of Shearer’s compelling photographs from the 1960s and 1970s will be on view in American Moments: Photographs by John Shearer at theNeuberger Museum of Art through January 27.