“But why do you want to interview me, I am main-stream”? Bill Shapiro the last editor of the famed LIFE magazine states with genuine confusion. For #itchysilk we found it a surprising question. Why wouldn’t we interview someone who was at the helm of a magazine that consistently published some of the most powerful and iconic images charting our global history?
The interview took place over Zoom and Bill Shapiro greeted us warmly.
“Hi, ok just give me a sec.” He was in a crouched position-he jokingly adds that he needs time to “uncoil his body.” He picks up his laptop walks into his garden and the glare of sunshine. At this juncture he is on a short break in Taos, New Mexico. In a t-shirt, he is relaxed and seemingly genuinely enthusiastic for the interview. It’s never easy being questioned when you are used to being the one firing off the questions.
In a cruel co-incidence right around the time we were organising time with Bill Shapiro, one of LIFE’s most famed editors, Richard Stolley died at ninety-two. His impact was evidently huge.
It seemed natural and apt to start the interview with a brief discussion about the man who was instrumental in bringing iconic images to the world: think the timeless and emotive images of JFK’s assassination. Richard Stolley was a behemoth of the publishing world-and rightly so.
“Stolley was the Los Angeles Bureau Chief for LIFE magazine in the early 60’s. He rushed to Dallas after JFK was shot, and he alone walked away with the only film of the assassination. He was a mentor to so many people. In fact, he was a mentor to a couple of generations of journalists. His office was just down the hall at LIFE when we re-launched the magazine so he mentored me too. During his years as the editor of People magazine, (which became the most successful magazine in the world), he came up with this interesting formula: The magazine would tell stories of ordinary people doing extraordinary things and of extraordinary people doing ordinary things. He also had rules for covers; celebrity beats regular person, movie beats television, television beats music and music beats books. Basically, you want a movie star on the cover more than an author.”
While Richard Stolley evidently had a major impact on Bill Shapiro, he was (and is) his own man: he has a quiet affable steel.
“Stolley was all about eye contact on covers. My first cover of LIFE was an image of Sarah Jessica Parker, with an ecstatic look on her face but her eyes were closed.” He laughs, evidently recalling the moment with clarity. “Stolley thought that it was a very questionable look, but I stuck to my guns. I thought the cover really showed that this was a different kind of LIFE magazine. There was a little bit of teenage brazenness, but we pulled it off.”
Having become the Editor in Chief of LIFE in 2004, Shapiro helped revive the publication as a weekly after it had shuttered in 1972. (It had published in the ’80s and ’90s as a monthly.) Life relaunched with a circulation of more than 12 million and a string of A-list celebrity covers, and Shapiro managed to keep the LIFE track record of amazing images while still placing his own editorial stamp. But editorial ‘stamps’ alone are not enough to keep a publication alive.
“It was a tough time in the newspaper industry—they were losing readers to this thing called the ‘Internet’—and the idea was that distributing LIFE, a glossy colour magazine, within the newspapers would attract more readers.” While Bill Shapiro certainly on the surface exudes a real warmth, it’s hard not to detect a slight (and justifiable) sadness when we discuss the demise of the hard copy Magazine. “In the end, although our circulation reached more than thirteen million and people liked it very much, the expense of distributing that many issues every week was hard for the company to swallow. I think what made it even harder was the fact that it is hard to sell a general interest product to thirteen million people. It is much easier to target readers. The internet can do that, but it is a much harder feat for a magazine.”
The internet has made it increasingly difficult for hard copy publications to survive. After all hard copy can never beat the immediacy or the ease of the internet. The stark reality: mass hard copy is on the brink (but that is another story).
“It took my breath away,” he states succinctly when we ask him about the last days of the magazine. “I still get choked up when I think of that moment that I had to tell my staff that we were done. I don’t know if you have seen the recent film The Life Of Walter Mitty (2013) but you should. It is a much better movie than it was given credit for. I was brought on as a consultant and I read the script and there was a scene about the closure of the magazine. In the first script it was an almost jovial affair. I was like, guys you do not understand. When this happened, every single person was crushed. Not only because they were losing a job but also because we all worked for this thing that we really believed in, we worked for a legacy. To see that die under my stewardship was heart breaking”.
“The entire staff of the print magazine was disbanded and about a year or so later I hired a new staff and we launched Life.com. It was a joint venture with Getty Images. It was a small team and it was an entirely different approach. We didn’t commission a lot of photography, but we were finding new ways to tell visual stories by marrying old images and new images.
He continues, “LIFE.com blew up and it became so popular because people could look at images on their iPad, lap-top or whatever. People were spending more time on our site than any other publication published at Time Inc (including People Magazine, Sports Illustrated, Time Magazine). There was a lot of potential for Life.com but in a brazen act of corporate stupidity, the company decided to ‘eat its own young’ and Time.com swallowed the online publication —and again my staff was let go. They took it over and then they realised it was more effort than they thought. Eventually it just became old images from the Life.com archive instead of its original concept where old and new images were intricately woven together to bring old and new moments together.”
Today, Time inc. no longer exists, and the site is run by a company famous for home-making magazines. “It’s a whole different ball game today,” Shapiro says.
And while Bill Shapiro is clear that “In some ways I want Life.com back absolutely. The things were quote unquote taken from me” he is far from wallowing in a pit of bitterness and longing for hey days. After all, things do move on, life changes, and a writer never really stops writing.
Ultimately (if you believe in it) there is life after LIFE.
“What We Keep (2018) is a book I created with my co-writer Naomi Wax. We went around the country and interviewed hundreds of people about a single object in their life that holds the most emotional significance to them. Naomi and I spoke to famous people like Mark Cuban (businessman), Hasan Minaj (a comedian), Tim O Brien who wrote a book called The Things We Carry (1990). We also talked to regular people as well. It was an emotional book. People keep things that speak to them about special moments in their life. Now however I write a lot about photography for magazines like Esquire, Vanity Fair, the Atlantic and an online magazine called Blind. I am working on a couple of book ideas and a couple of tv and film ideas. And every Friday, on my Instagram feed, I write about an under-the-radar photographer. I just can’t get these photos out of my blood.”
(Featured image by Jon Holderer)