Renowned Photographer John Shearer Visits Open Grounds

John Mason, Associate Professor and Associate Chair, Corcoran Department of History, and the organizer of The Fralin Museum of Art’s Gordon Parks exhibit brought his class to OpenGrounds last week for a conversation with renowned photographer, John Shearer.

Mr. Shearer spoke about his mentor, Gordon Parks, a seminal figure of twentieth century photography. First year students from Professor Mason’s COLA class on “Photography in the Age of Instagram” listened eagerly to Shearer’s tales of adventure and life lessons about Parks.


Gordon Parks, whose photographs are currently on display at the Fralin Musuem at UVA, was the first African American staff photographer at LIFE. The second was John Shearer. The duo worked independently as well as together at LIFE and covered civil rights and the race riots in the 1960s.

“Malcom X” Black Muslim Protest, 1963 Photo credit: Gordon Parks.

At 17, Shearer was hired by LOOK magazine as one of its youngest photography staffers in the history of the publication. While with the team, he covered riots and popular issues of the time and had a particular affinity for civil rights. He told students about the demand from publications for personal portraits of people active in the riots. “Most people do not want to be photographed up close and personal… so we had to improvise by learning how to photograph people in a way that wasn’t going to bother them” he remarked.

Shearer and Parks’ friendship lead them to the field often- covering risky movements and protests. They would divide and photograph different aspects of the event while keeping a lookout for each other. If one saw police or violence nearby, he would alert the other. This kind of camaraderie made for a lasting working relationship that Shearer spoke fondly of.

“Police Brutality Must Go,” Black Muslim Protest, 1963 Photo credit: Gordon Parks.

Among Shearer’s most important stories was his coverage of the Attica Prison riots in 1972. He was the only photographer allowed inside the prison during the assault by New York law enforcement authorities. Shearer has been exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, MOMA, and the Whitney Museum, Life Picture Collection.

Visit the Gordon Parks exhibit at the Fralin – click  here for hours and details.


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