Art Shay: Chicago Accent

WHEN Opens Fri 3/9, through Sat 5/26

WHERE Stephen Daiter Gallery, 311 W. Superior, #404-408

INFO 312-787-3350

The Essential Art Shay: Selected Photographs

WHEN Opens Sat 3/31, through Sun 9/23

WHERE Chicago History Museum, 1601 N. Clark

INFO 312-642-4600

Art Shay’s story is a jam-packed American epic, a stew of history and chutzpah that would be hard to believe if he hadn’t snapped the evidence all along the way. Two exhibits opening this month, at Stephen Daiter gallery and the Chicago History Museum, bear witness to the photographer’s life and work. He went from the sidewalks of the Bronx, where he grew up, to wartime skies over Germany to Life magazine in its postwar heyday. During the 50-year career that followed–managed from a Deerfield split-level where he and his wife, rare book dealer Florence Shay, raised five children–he met and immortalized everyone from mobsters and movie stars to protesters and presidents. “At one point I was the go-to photographer, freelance, for Time, Life, Fortune, Sports Illustrated, the New York Times Magazine, Parade, Business Week, Forbes, and Saturday Evening Post,” Shay says. He reckons he’s published 25,000 images, of which 1,000 were covers.

The child of Russian immigrants, Shay says he got his first lessons in both sex and photography at a summer camp where he’d landed a job as a bugler. He attended college for a few months, then enlisted in the air force and wound up a navigator in the 703rd Squadron; he flew two combat tours, including 30 bombing missions over Germany. In 1944 he caught a midair collision on film and scored his first publication: a six-image full-page spread in Look magazine. Three years later, on the strength of captions he’d written for his photos, Life hired him as a reporter. After working in New York and Washington, Shay was sent at age 25 to San Francisco as the magazine’s youngest bureau chief. He blew the job when he raised the curtain on a voting booth so a photographer could shoot vice presidential candidate Earl Warren making his selections. Warren charged out of the booth shouting about violation of privacy, and Shay got busted down to reporter at the Chicago bureau. He’s lived in the Chicago area ever since.

He only lasted 18 months in the job. “I had the itch to do my own pictures,” he says. “I’d done maybe 70 stories for Life and had never seen my name on a byline.” (Copy in Life was mostly uncredited.) “I was dreaming up the ideas, making the arrangements, managing everything, shipping the film, writing the captions, and then the story comes out and it’s a triumph for the photographer.” The first idea he pitched as a freelancer was a photo essay on Nelson Algren–“the poet of the slums,” Shay says, “wandering around the city.” Life never bought it, but Shay, a self-described writer groupie, “followed Algren around for 10 or 12 years, documenting his world.” Shay’s obsession yielded images of the real Man With the Golden Arm, a bare-bottomed Simone de Beauvoir, and a 1950 Madison Street tableau of a half-dozen men going about their business against a backdrop of advertising logos that’s especially rich with the drama of everyday life. Last year the painter Robert Guinan copied it in oil as Homage to Art Shay. Shay’s 1988 book, Nelson Algren’s Chicago, included some of these photos; more will appear in his expanded follow-up, Chicago’s Nelson Algren, being published later this spring by Seven Stories Press.

Shay says Cornell Capa invited him to join Magnum, which at that time would have meant limiting himself to editorial work. But his commercial gigs paid the bills. When Time was paying $25 for a portrait, Motorola or Zenith was dishing out a $500 day rate. So he never signed on with Magnum–he kept the commercial clients and also, over the years, turned out about 60 picture-and-text books, everything from the children’s book What Happens When You Mail a Letter to 40 Common Errors in Racquetball (Shay is a former national amateur champ).

Shay also continued his documentary work, producing iconic images like his 1968 Welcome Democrats, in which a line of Chicago police bayonets undercuts the greeting emblazoned above them. “That’s my kind of picture,” he says. “It’s ironic, and it gives the lie to what you see.” If he’d been able to draw, he says, he would have been a cartoonist. Like cartoons, his photos often have a punch line–humorous or serious or both–in the form of visual counterpoint: pigs swim with swans, drunks stagger in front of liquor ads, billboards urge tenement dwellers to bring their extra cash to First National. His image of Nikita Khrushchev in an Iowa cornfield won Life’s 1959 Picture of the Year award, and B&W magazine devoted 14 pages to him in 2005. But what’s recently tickled him most, he says, was making his first score at Rolling Stone, in 2004 when the magazine included his 1963 photo of the Supremes in its roster of the top 50 rock ‘n’ roll pictures.

The tragedy of Shay’s life was the disappearance of his eldest son, presumed murdered, just shy of the boy’s 21st birthday in 1972: “We never even got a body.” Shay’s also weathered two heart surgeries, the most recent three years ago, an experience he documented for the New York Times. He still lives in the suburban split-level, up to his ears in uncataloged negatives and prints–a wilderness only now being tamed by an archivist. (His dealer, Daiter, says he discovered his favorite Shay photograph on a visit a few years ago when he stepped on it.) Shay still plays racquetball three times a week, and he’s hoping to finish and perform a one-man show about Algren. The Daiter exhibit (50 photographs and two catalogs) opens March 9; the Chicago History Museum show (140 images from the 1940s to 2002 plus artifacts, including two tiny cameras Shay used to spy on Mafia bosses and mall shoppers alike) on March 31. That’s also Shay’s 85th birthday.


The Chinese government does not want you to see the Chinese New Year Spectacular, a touring show booked for two performances at the Auditorium this Saturday, according to one of the show’s local producers, Stacey Tang of Sound of Hope Radio. She says phone ticket lines were blocked by calls made from China. Tang says the Auditorium show features traditional Chinese culture, which the Chinese government is still trying to erase. A competing show produced by the Shanghai government has been scheduled at the south side’s House of Hope Arena on the same date. . . . Theater promo pro Jay Kelly of Off Loop Marketing will still be off-Loop but, starting in April, no longer a one-man show. Victory Gardens announced last week that Kelly will be coming on board as its new director of marketing and public relations.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Art Shay photo/Paul L. Merideth.