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Remembering John Shearer Share This on LinkedIn   Tweet This   Forward This

28 June 2019

John Oliver Shearer began a career in photojournalism at the age of 16 when he captured the image of John Jr. saluting the assassinated president, his father, with his sister, mother and uncles behind him. On Saturday, he succumbed to prostrate cancer at the age of 72.

He had been invited to the funeral as an assistant but was given a press pass and told to shoot photos of "people grieving." His own father had given him a telephoto lens for the occasion, which he used to get the shot before the Secret Service knocked him to the ground, cracking the new lens.

The man who had invited him to assist was the photo director of Look magazine. And at the age of 20, Shearer went to work for Look as the magazine's second-youngest staff photographer (after Stanley Kubrick).

He covered the Ku Klux Klan, the King funeral, Vietnam protests, the Attica riot, the 1971 Ali-Frazier fight and other seminal moments in the history of this country before he was done.

He suffered a learning disability that he fought by teaching himself to read photography books, which also taught him photography.

He was born in Harlem to the BBDO art director who created the Quincy comic strip and an attorney who served as deputy commissioner of social services in Westchester County, N.Y. The family moved to Westchester when he was in the third grade where Gordon Parks, who later enticed Shearer to move to Life magazine, was a neighbor.

He suffered a learning disability that he fought by teaching himself to read photography books, which also taught him photography. By the age of eight he had started shooting with a Brownie Hawkeye.

In his early teens he was winning photo contests and was exhibited in Grand Central Terminal where that Look photo director, Arthur Rothstein, first saw his work.

He attended the Rochester Institute of Technology before dropping out to cover the Vietnam War protests full time.

But it was the war between the races in this country that occupied him.

When he shot in the South, he worked with a white photographer, standing back to back so they could not be jumped from behind. Still he was almost lynched in Alabama on one occasion.

And covering riots where the threat of tear gas was always present, he skipped the gas mask that would have made shooting impossible in favor of vinegar-soaked cotton he put up his nose to keep his eyes clear.

But, as in his first shot of John Jr., it was the people in those situations, not the situations, that were his subject. He captured them with dignity and let their souls tell the story.

Shearer won 175 national photography awards and has been exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art.

He is survived by his wife Marianne and their two children, Alison and William.

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