Support Hyperallergic’s independent arts journalism. Become a Member »

Support Hyperallergic’s independent arts journalism.

Steve Schapiro, from ‘Bowie: Photographs by Steve Schapiro’ (all images courtesy powerHouse Books)

1974 was the year David Bowie released Diamond Dogs, his concept album about a glammy, Orwell-inspired post-apocalypse; the year he starred as the emaciated cocaine-addled subject of the BBC documentary Cracked Actor; and the year he began recording what became the Young Americans LP. It was also the year that photographer Steve Schapiro — best known for his documentation of Civil Rights marches, as well as portraits of The Godfather stars — received an invitation for a private photo shoot with Bowie in Los Angeles. Some of the photographs from this shoot would later be turned into album art for Station to Station and Low. Most, though, would remain inaccessible to the public.

Months after Bowie’s death at age 69, these mostly never-before-published images are now compiled in Bowie: Photographs by Steve Schapiro (powerHouse), along with photos from tours in 1976 and 1986.

The photographs capture the pop star/fashion icon’s singular ability to use clothing to create character: The chameleonic Bowie changed costumes about every 20 minutes during the 1974 shoot, which ran from 4pm until dawn at the rented home of Marilyn Monroe on Doheny Drive. With flaming red hair, he poses on a motorcycle in a graphic button-down and stripy tie; he sits on a couch in a tweed newsboy cap and matching jacket; he smokes a cigarette wearing rose-colored glasses and silver crosses. For the photos that would later become album art for Station to Station, he wears a navy shirt and pants that he borrowed from an assistant, then painted with silver diagonal stripes. Forty years later, he would recreate the outfit for “Lazarus.”

Steve Schapiro, “Hands” portrait

These are more than just dazzling bonus photographs to add to the world’s collective Bowie shrine, though. Some of them might include “signs,” even “proof,” that “Bowie was a god” (not just a mere saint), as Bowie superfan Albin Wantier argues in a feverish and convoluted accompanying essay, “Kabbalah, Nuclear Fusion, and Immortality: David Bowie’s Signs.” Wantier suggests that, when paired with symbolism from Blackstar and the haunting farewell of “Lazarus,” photos of Bowie in his diagonal striped suit, as he drew interconnected circles on the wall, “reveal an enigma subtly concealed by the artist.”

It sounds a little like a crackpot crying Illuminati, but Bowie’s dabbling in the occult is well known. During the 1974 shoot, Bowie “talked a lot about Aleister Crowley, whose esoteric writings he was heavily into at the time,” Schapiro writes. While wearing his hand-painted striped suit, he manically scribbled “a complex series of interconnected circles [on a sheet of paper he’d hung on the door], which I only learned later was a diagram from Kabbalah.” These drawings were of the Tree of Life, also known as the Tree of Sephirot in Kabbalah, illustrating the 10 emanations and attributes of God that sustain the universe.

Steve Schapiro, from ‘Bowie’

“You don’t need to be an expert in Bowie runology to realize that the ‘Lazarus’ video is a farewell message,” Wantier writes, but those with an interest in symbolism might find “striking” connections between 1974 photographs of Bowie scribbling Kabbalistic symbols and the visual details in Blackstar and “Lazarus.” Wantier outlines his frenzied interpretation of such connections and signs that Bowie “is immortal”:

Pictures from this 1974 session show Bowie still tracing his diagrams, this time in a notebook, as he gazes thoughtfully into infinity. The widest-angle photograph shows an interrogation point on the wall. It can be deduced that Bowie is questioning the meaning of life. His doodles are a quest, a starting-point. Back to 2016: Bowie dances around his deathbed in his 1976 costume, then sits at his desk, thinks, and then scribbles frantically in his notebook in a trance-like state, to the point of jumping off the margins of the page and onto the actual table. He appears to have found the meaning he has been searching for. The connection between both images, 40 years apart, is stunning. In “Lazarus,” Bowie finishes his last chapter, stops taking notes and walks away, backwards. He has resolved his enigma, and the curtain can fall at last.

Steve Schapiro, “Bowie at his LA home,” from ‘Bowie’

Not only has Bowie “resolved his enigma,” Wantier continues, he’s also become “eternal.” The lithograph prints that came with “Blackstar” on vinyl feature a set of symbols: chemical formulas representing the various stages of nuclear fusion that lead to the formation of a sun. Which means … Bowie has also become a sun:

In the “Blackstar” video, both nuclei necessary for fusing are present: Major Tom, the embodiment of all of Bowie’s alter egos (Major Tom, Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, Halloween Jack, Thin White Duke, Nathan Adler) and David Bowie the man—the character and his creator, at last fused. Together, they generate enough energy to create a sun, a source of eternal light. Together, they generate enough energy to create a sun, a source of eternal light. I’m a blackstar…. He has reached nirvana: his life—his work—is immortal.

I always knew that Bowie was a god. Now I have proof.

And there you have it: “proof,” via esoteric symbols, that Bowie was a god. For many, though, his body of work and his haloed face in these photographs is evidence enough.

Steve Schapiro, from ‘Bowie’

Bowie: Photographs by Steve Schapiro, out from powerHouse, is available on Amazon and other online booksellers. 

The Latest


Carey Dunne

Carey Dunne is a Brooklyn-based writer covering arts and culture. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, The Baffler, The Village Voice, and elsewhere.