By Matt Smith
If you’ve ever explored the bucolic trails of Rockefeller State Park Preserve on a breezy Spring morning, chances are you may have crossed paths with Todd Shapera. You probably wouldn’t know it though, as the “sensitive and worldly” photographer, who walks with his rescue dogs Ruby and Rico, is often sans camera during these peaceful strolls. “When I’m there, I don’t photograph,” Shapera explains. “It’s about time in nature…finding balance…feeling grounded. The Preserve is my sanctuary.”
It’s a pretty regular habit for the Pocantico Hills resident, and “very much a part of the rhythm of my life.” He notes that on a given day, these moments of tranquility–both on the trail and on his deck, which overlooks a horse farm in the heart of the park–help to center him and allow for better focus on that day’s work. And if he says it enhances his work, the more power to him as his photography is downright gorgeous–and critics, from both the local community and the professional world, can’t get enough.
It’s nothing short of exciting, especially for Shapera himself, considering the photographer, who has shot in 57 countries to date, actually got his start as a reporter and writer, producing news stories for NPR. That job evolved into speech writing “for a politician in NYC and Albany” (Governor Cuomo’s wife) which, in turn, evolved into freelancing for several global publications. One such paper was The Financial Times of London, where his assignments eventually set him on the path toward his destiny.
“[The paper] would send me to explore distant places, like Patagonia, the Yukon rivers near the Arctic Circle and the Yangtze River in China,” he explains. “I would write features for their weekend magazine, How to Spend It. At the time, I took a camera with me, and I took a few [shots]. Soon, the editor began featuring my landscape photos with my stories.”
He didn’t think much of his photography at the time–“it was one camera, one lens”–but his editors were certainly impressed. States Shapera: “They liked that I could come back with both elements, a story and photos, for them to publish.” As his portfolio continued to grow and develop, so did his passion for the art form. And as they say, the rest is history.
Today, Shapera works on both a local and global scale, photographing for leading global agencies and foundations throughout Africa, Central America, and Asia, as well as several prestigious Westchester venues, including Abigail Kirsch at Tappan Hill, Tarrytown House, Trump National, and the American Yacht Club in Rye.
His local work has also included a six-year stint for the Rockefeller Brothers Fund (RBF) at their Pocantico Hills estate, Kykuit, where he documents performances in the garden by New York City dance companies and jazz artists. Last year, RBF President Stephen B. Heintz even invited Shapera to document their private 100th birthday dinner for David Rockefeller, held in Kykuit’s ornate dining room.
With all this activity, it’s not hard to see why he’s racked up his fair share of accolades–both nationally and globally. Shapera recently received WeddingWire’s prestigious Couples’ Choice Award* for the third year in a row. He has also received the international WedAward** in January, February and April of this year. Additionally, his work documenting a wedding at the Sleepy Hollow Country Club was featured in the Vows section of The New York Times. As diverse as weddings can be, Todd attributes his success photographing them to singular skill. “I come to each wedding with fresh eyes,” he says.
Among his global honors for social documentary photography, he was awarded a photographers’ fellowship from Management Sciences for Health (MSH) to document healthcare reform in Rwanda two decades after the genocide. The panel chose Shapera among 250 global applicants, citing the way his prior work in Africa “captured the inner beauty and the dignity of people in their everyday lives.”
“For me, it begins with beautiful lighting,” he continues, on the subject. “I try to paint with light.” He points to a photo he took in Kenya for the NGO, Hatua Likoni in which both light and dignity are a major focus.
This technique is not limited to his work aboard; he approaches his local event photography in the same way. To illustrate this point, he next pulls out a photo from a wedding at the New York Botanical Garden, in which the newlyweds are positioned under an August supermoon–utilizing dramatic lighting for enhanced effect.
In working so intimately with his clients, he values their trust, and prides himself on his ability to develop longstanding relationships with many of them. “I photographed a Chappaqua girl’s Bat Mitzvah twelve years ago,” he shares. “[Then,] I did her sister’s [Bat Mitzvah] two years later, and now, in September, I’m doing her wedding [photography] in Tarrytown. It’s a Jewish-Hindu wedding. The groom’s going to come in on a horse. It’s going to be unbelievable.” Additionally, Shapera donates his time and craft to several local charitable organizations, including Chappaqua’s Making Headway Foundation, which helps to raise money and awareness for children with brain and spinal cord tumors, and their families. “Todd is a such a wonderful man, and a great, great photographer,” says Maya Manley, who founded Making Headway with her husband, Edward. “He knows how to talk to kids, and approach parents, and he can build bridges with both [groups] so easily. He’s so gentle and kind.”
But despite the positive endorsement, Shapera insists on staying out of the spotlight, seeking to be unobtrusive in his work. “When I go to an event, it’s never about me,” he shares. “It’s about the story I’m capturing.”
To that end, he adds that “after an event, it’s not unusual for a client to tell me they didn’t even know I was there, but [at the same time, they] knew I was everywhere.” That’s definitely the Shapera touch. And while many continue to praise him for his efforts, ever humble, he recedes, stating: “I just love storytelling.” But, as Professional Photographer Magazine noted in a recent profile piece, he’s a storyteller who is artfully “linking disparate worlds through photography.” With that, it’s clear he’s making a difference that’s gone anything but unnoticed. And, to think, it all began with “one camera, one lens.”
For more info: www.toddshapera.com.
A fan of all photography, Matt Smith is a freelance writer based in Chappaqua. For more information, visit www.mattsmiththeatre.com.
*The WeddingWire Couples’ Choice award is given to the top five percent of photographers in their national network based on client reviews.
**The WedAward is given to just three percent of monthly submissions from around the globe.