John Shearer is a true renaissance man, fashioned in the mold of Gordon Parks.
Like Parks, Shearer has been a photographer, writer, director, lecturer and professor. Gordon Parks was the first Black staff photographer at LIFE, John was the second.
John Shearer was born and raised in New York City. He attended Rochester Institute of Technology and School of Visual Arts. At 17, Shearer was one of the youngest staff photographers ever hired by a major publication when LOOK hired him. On Staff with LOOK 1966-1969, John covered civil rights and the race riots of the 1960’s. Shearer was hired by LIFE in 1968, where he worked as a staff photographer until the magazine ceased regular weekly publications in 1972.
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.
Forty years ago LIFE magazine published an intimate and, for the time, remarkably even-handed article on the mounting problems associated with street gangs in New York and other cities around the country. The piece focused on one gang in particular — the Reapers in the South Bronx — and featured a series of powerful color pictures by John Shearer.
John once stated “People often ask me what it was like to work at the weekly Life magazine. I tell them that they should read The Bridges of Madison County. It was a book and a movie that made me cry. It captured in many ways what life was like for me as a photographer on the road. Mine was life always full to overflowing with new people, people that I often cared deeply about. People that I often formed a lasting bond with, people that I met once and would never see again.
John Shearer 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.
The Museum of UnCut Funk is honored to have John Shearer serve as our first guest curator. The beautiful black and white images he provided for this exhibition are from his News Events portfolio, his original photography that covers some of the key historical events mentioned in this post.
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 Jive book series and animated cartoon segment that aired on Sesame Street.