BANGOR, Maine — Most people know his face from a logo for the popular personal care product line he helped build. But before Burt Shavitz, the face of Burt’s Bees, and his business turned into a global sensation, he was a photographer living and working in New York City in the 1960s.
Shavitz, who agreed to be interviewed at the Bangor Daily News photo studio recently, was born in Manhattan, came from an artistic family and started taking pictures at an early age. While serving in the military, he became a photographer. Afterward he would find himself inspired by the characters he would meet in Central Park, a place he refers to often.
“There were people with their body gone [from the waist down] wheeling their wheelchairs around,” Shavitz recalled. “Mothers with small children pushing kids on swings with chains that were 12-feet-long.”
Not many of these were published because they weren’t what the masses wanted to see, Shavitz said. The photos that were published often appeared in publications such as the New York Times and Time and Life magazines.
Shavitz, wearing a red plaid vest underneath his huge bushy beard, looked over black and white photos he made of a child behind a chain-link fence in Harlem during the 1960s.
“I saw the place as a jail,” he said. “Look at the look in the kid’s eyes … you had to have a strong backbone to be able to spend a 90-degree day on macadam or cement.”
Among his memories of the people he photographed, Shavitz remembers several icons in the world of photography with whom he started relationships.
“I went out to the Flower District, which is where Gene Smith lived, just knocked on the door, he opened the door and said ‘come in,’” Shavitz said.
W. Eugene Smith, an American photojournalist known for his work during World War ll, soon had Shavitz sorting his negatives at Smith’s home in New York.
“He had an incredible amount of photographs he wanted me to sort. It gave me a chance to see all of Gene Smith’s pictures,” Shavitz said.
Diane Arbus, Tom Wolfe, Allen Ginsberg, Thelonius Monk and Andy Warhol were just a few of many famous people Shavitz got to know during his time in New York.
“The city was just chock-a-block full of people doing their own thing, and you met them here, there and everywhere,” he said.
Even with all the relationships he had made and his deep-rooted connection with New York’s streets, Shavitz made a decision to leave.
“The reason I left is here,” Shavitz said sorting through a stack of his prints.
“This is the house next to the alley where I used to live,” he said holding up a black and white image of the side of a building where an elderly woman wearing a scarf solemnly gazed outside.
“The old woman in the picture on the other side of the window never left that room, never, she was always leaning out the window,” Shavitz said. “I realized if I stayed there long enough, I’d end up in the same boat, which is nothing I wanted to do.”
Although it didn’t happen immediately, Shavitz left for upstate New York with his Volkswagen van, motorcycle and other belongings. It was years later after moving to Maine, selling honey from his truck and meeting the business-savvy Roxanne Quimby, he became the Burt from Burt’s Bees that many people recognize.
In 2013, after the release of Burt’s Buzz, a documentary about Burt’s life, the world had a glimpse of the unique character of Shavitz. The film brought Shavitz and his assistant Trevor Folsom to the Toronto International Film Festival.
“They put us up on the stage, and people in the audience asked questions. We gave them answers,” Shavitz said.
“People in the audience like Matthew McConaughey, people like that who came to see our film who you have no idea who they are,” Folsom joked.
Shavitz looked back at Folsom and very seriously replied, “Who were they?”
“They were just actors,” Folsom said.
“Ah huh,” Shavitz said with a nod.
Shavitz shrugs the movie and all the inherent fame from Burt’s Bees off as no big deal and tends to focus on the present more than anything else.
“It was flattering after a fashion. I like the lead character,” Shavitz said.