The title of Art Shay’s new photo exhibit, “Troublemakers,” was deliberately chosen to play with audience expectations, says Erik Gellman, the Roosevelt University history professor who curated it. Visitors may come in expecting to see images of hooligans. Instead they’ll find photos of scenes from the freedom movements of the 1950s and ’60s as they played out in Chicago.
“The people in the streets causing trouble were changing the status quo,” Gellman says.
“Troublemakers” highlights more than 300 pictures culled from Shay’s voluminous archives, which encompass photos of nearly every aspect of American life in the mid-20th century. Some were taken while Shay was on assignment for Time or Life; others were taken while he wandered around the city, as Gellman puts it, “looking for action.” Many of them have never been shown before.
To squeeze that many photographs into the Gage Gallery’s single room, Gellman arranged 200 12-inch prints in a continuous chronological strip along the gallery wall, with larger prints of more significant images hung above and below.
This includes one of his favorite pictures in the show, a 1956 shot of a circle of people holding hands at dusk, singing in protest against housing segregation in north-suburban Deerfield.
“I was always more interested in people’s reactions, not just, ‘Oh, that’s Martin Luther King,'” Shay said in a recent conversation.
One of his personal favorites comes from a ride-along he did in the late 60s with members of the Blackstone Rangers, the south-side gang known both for its criminal activity and its community organizing. In the car, one gang member raises his fist in salute. On the street, two bystanders raise their own fists in response. On the wall behind them is a piece of graffiti: “Stones run it.”
“There’s a degree of vanity involved,” Shay explained. “All people respond to it. It’s momentary celebrity.” Plus, he added, “If you’re black and about to be killed, you want it filmed.”
9/17-12/19, Gage Gallery, 18 S. Michigan, 312-341-6458, roosevelt.edu, free.