It’s fortunate that “Troublemakers,” a new exhibition of Art Shay‘s human rights photos, is showing at the Gage Gallery at Roosevelt University: admission to the Gage is free, so until the show closes on December 19, anyone can return as many times as he or she needs to in order to take in the whole thing. Many of the 300 photos here have never been shown before, and until now, some were never even printed—they only existed as slides.
As an artist, Shay is a maximalist. For most of his life—he’s now 93—he’s never gone anywhere without a camera, and he’s gone a lot of places. Erik Gellman, the Roosevelt history professor who curated “Troublemakers” along with Shay’s longtime assistant Erica DeGlopper, had to leave out a lot—Shay’s sports photography, his celebrity portraits, the many, many pictures he took of his family—but even with a comparatively narrow focus on Chicago protests and protesters in the 1950s and ’60s, pictures completely cover the walls of the gallery, from floor to ceiling.
The majority of the pictures are on a 12-inch strip that circles the walls of the gallery, like a time line; the larger and more striking images hang framed on the wall above and below it. The exhibition proceeds in roughly chronological order—from scenes of poor black neighborhoods in the 1950s through acts of rage and anger in the late ’60s that set the city on fire—and ends with pictures of black artists celebrating their cultural identity: one of the victories of the revolution. The exhibition focuses mostly on civil rights, but there are plenty of scenes from the 1968 Democratic National Convention as well—though, oddly, nothing from the women’s rights movement.
Shay shot some familiar faces—Martin Luther King Jr., James Baldwin, Elijah Muhammad, Allen Ginsberg, Richard J. Daley—and there are plenty of his trademark juxtapositions of images and words. But some of the most striking photos are of masses of Chicagoans, black and white, young and old, marching through the Loop and past the Daley bungalow in Bridgeport or swarming through Grant Park, climbing up on statues, facing off against cops. They depict, quite literally, the social movements that transformed our country.
“Troublemakers” runs through 12/19 at the Gage Gallery, 18 S. Michigan, 312-341-6458, roosevelt.edu, free.