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Steve Schapiro's best shot

In 1964, I went to the Museum of Modern Art in New York to shoot René Magritte. There he was inside, sitting on a bench. His wife and dog were with him, and they were surrounded by his pictures. I was doing Magritte, one of my favourite artists, for Life magazine and I only had an hour and half; but for each photograph, Magritte decided to become part of, or connected to, one of his works.

There was a painting of a big rock with a castle, so Magritte lay down on a bench in front of it, with his head on his hat; my photograph then looked like he was dreaming the picture. The one above works because Magritte actually resembles the protagonists in many of his pictures, especially the ones wearing that trademark hat. The challenge – always – is how to make a picture special. If you're working with someone imaginative, an artist operating at Magritte's level, it can turn into a collaboration. In this case, it definitely did. We were all in high spirits. We didn't talk much: our relationship was basically based on smiling. We did another shot of Magritte and this painting, with a hand coming in from the side holding Magritte's bowler hat over his head. It added our own surreal touch.

This was all done with natural light. I prefer that: when you don't have long, some of the energy between you and the subject can be lost if you start fiddling with lights.

At the time, most of Life was in black and white. I do feel it conveys emotion more strongly than colour. When you work for magazines, you often experience this kind of collaborative energy on a shoot. You become very close, but you may never see that person again. I didn't have any contact with Magritte after this, but I was extremely happy to have taken his picture.


Born: New York, 1934.

Studied: With Eugene Smith.

Influences: Henri Cartier-Bresson, Bill Brandt, Eugene Smith, Walker Evans.

High point: "Working with charis-matic individuals: Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Laurence Olivier, Samuel Beckett."

Top tip: "Look at the picture you're going to take, then see how you can make it better." © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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