100 Years of Scholastic Art & Writing Awards Alumni: John Shearer

pgodbole  //  May 18, 2023

100 Years of Scholastic Art & Writing Awards Alumni: John Shearer

Welcome back to our OOM series dedicated to spotlighting those who have participated in the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards over the past 100 years. Every week leading up to the national Awards ceremony at Carnegie Hall in June, we will be sharing the stories of some of the program’s incredible alumni whose lives have been impacted by the Awards.

This week we will be spotlighting Scholastic Art & Writing alum and renowned civil rights photojournalist John Shearer, who passed away in June 2019 after a long, storied career.Back in 1963, John won his first Scholastic Art & Writing Award in photography as a ninth-grade student at Woodlands High School in Hartsdale, NY, and his award-winning photograph was printed in Scholastic Magazine and made available in classrooms around the country. After his initial success, Shearer continued to dominate the Awards, earning recognition at the national level throughout the remainder of his high school career.

Around the same time that John was receiving his first Scholastic Art Awards, he was also making history with his camera. Despite his young age, John attended John F. Kennedy’s funeral in 1963 as an assistant to Look magazine’s photo director. When the photo director handed John a press pass, he grabbed his camera and, on sheer instinct, managed to take the most widely-circulated photo of the event—a stark, slightly-overexposed image of toddler John Jr. saluting his father’s casket while standing alongside his mourning family.After graduating high school in 1966, John went on to attend the Rochester Institute of Technology, but soon dropped out to pursue his passion for photography full-time. This monumental decision came at a pivotal point in American history, as the civil rights movement was in full swing.

John’s eye for empathy coupled with his talent as a photographer allowed him to simultaneously show respect for his subjects while getting ‘the shot’ he came for. Covering riots from the South Bronx to the Deep South, he learned how to work on the fly, and even came up with an innovative safety solution – vinegar-soaked cotton balls in each nostril – that allowed him to work through the tumultuous conditions without wearing a gas mask, which would have compromised his ability to see through his camera lens.

A few years later at just 20 years old, John joined Look magazine as a staff photographer. The second-youngest photographer hired by Look to date (after Stanley Kubrick), John continued to craft his career around photographing history, covering marches, race riots, and the funeral of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for Look and later Life magazine.

Notably, John’s relationship with Scholastic continued long after high school. He took all of the photos that illustrate the Scholastic Black Literature Series anthology book, The Black Hero, which was widely distributed in education markets throughout the country during the 1970s. Thousands of American 10th graders saw and learned from his photos.

Over the course of his illustrious career, John won 175 national photography awards and had his work exhibited in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art. He left behind a legacy that will continue to live on for years to come, as photographers around the globe reflect and learn from his work documenting a crucial period of American history with poise and respect.

To learn more about the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, please visit artandwriting.org. And be sure to return to On Our Minds next week for our next alumni spotlight!

Images in the body: Courtesy of Marianne Shearer and Scholastic library archive