Arts & Culture » Art Feature

Art Shay: The man with the golden lens

He was one of the mid-20th century's most prolific photographers. Now, at 92, Shay's getting the vast archive that fills his home in order, and he's finally receiving the appreciation from the art world he's long deserved.

by

17 comments
Nelson Algren playing cards with a group of acquaintances, including William Hackett, the original man with the golden arm. - ART SHAY
  • Art Shay
  • Nelson Algren playing cards with a group of acquaintances, including William Hackett, the original man with the golden arm.

Scroll to the end of this story to see a slideshow of selected highlights from Art Shay's archives.

Art Shay moved into the pine-green split-level house in a subdivision in Deerfield in 1958 with his wife, Florence, and the first four of their five children. As the kids grew up and left home, Shay's collection of his own photos, in print, negative, and slide form, expanded from the basement darkroom to fill the house's bottom level, then three of the four bedrooms (the fourth, where Shay sleeps, is full of books), and finally to make serious inroads into the living room, dining room, and kitchen. There are photos respectfully framed and hung; photos in plastic sleeves leaning against walls and bookcases; photos in archival boxes piled under the windows; photos in slide form strewn across the dining room table beside a light box; photos in Shay's 58 published books, all crammed into the bookcase.

Shay's photojournalism career began during World War II, when a series of pictures he took of a collision between two B-24s above his air base in East Anglia was published in Look magazine, and ended in 1988, when he shot the night the lights went on at Wrigley Field for Time. Over the course of more than 40 years, Shay documented presidents and crime bosses, pro football players and civil rights protests, south-side kids improvising a playground in an alley and suburban families collapsed in exhaustion on the floor of the Northbrook Court shopping mall, and Nelson Algren chatting with a hooker on a street corner in Chicago. Just flip through any random pile and you'll wonder if there's anything in mid-20th century America that Shay didn't photograph.

Shay claims to remember every photo he's ever taken—"it's conditioned," he explains—and the story of how he got it. Stories are important to him, even more than lovely compositions, though he knows about those too. On the coldest morning of the year, he sits in a rocking chair that looks like it's been in the living room since the house was new, holding court. Today's audience includes Erica DeGlopper, who describes herself as his archaeologist ("I put his previous life in order"); Erik Gellman, a history professor at Roosevelt University; and Jack Davidson, a filmmaker from Milwaukee.

Shay is 92 now. When he was a young man, he was broad and burly, but now he's shrunk in his skin. Years of racquetball and running through political conventions and along the sidelines of football fields have wrecked his knees. Wires from the hearing aid behind his left ear disappear into the U.S. Air Force Veterans baseball cap he wears on his head. An iPhone rests on one knee; he knows how to use it for just about everything except, ironically, photography. (For that he has a small digital Samsung and a Canon C15 he takes everywhere.) But his voice is strong and his memory is clear, and he directs his stories to the various members of his audience in order to make sure everyone is still listening. DeGlopper, who after ten years of archiving knows Shay's collection as well as he does and has an uncanny ability to find pictures based on Shay's descriptions, provides visual aids. (Later in the afternoon, she will uncover a picture Shay took of Jeff Fort, leader of the Blackstone Rangers, in a bar on the south side; according to Gellman, it's one of the rare photos of Fort taken outside a courtroom or a jail.)

"I did 80 Mafia stories [for Life and other magazines]," Shay says. "I had a hidden camera. My wife had a purse camera. She went with me. She got a picture of Moe Dalitz. He was the head of the Cleveland Mafia." He later moved to Las Vegas, where he owned several casinos and became a major developer. (DeGlopper presents a photo of Art and Florence dolled up for a night on the town in 1958, showing off their hidden cameras. He's jauntily lighting a cigarette. She looks nervous.)

Slideshows Selected highlights from Art Shay's archives

"That one's Iowa Gothic."(A Grant Wood-like couple on a farmhouse porch.) "I was coming home from Des Moines, where I was shooting Khrushchev on a farm. I saw that couple in the sunset light. It was irresistible to me. Coca-Cola offered to buy some of my negatives, the one of some kids celebrating graduation by peeing into a bottle." Coke wanted to destroy them. "They said they provided a negative image of their product." He's still especially pleased at the shot of a heavyset nurse pushing a diet program at a mall next to a sign that reads, "You may not be overweight, but are you over-fat?" "That's a gift to a photographer," he says. "People do move instinctively into the best positions. Some porno photographer told me that."

Shay's a smooth and practiced storyteller. Over the years he's refined the wording and the timing; the definitive versions appear in his 2000 book Album for an Age, less an autobiography than a collection of anecdotes and pictures. The stories simultaneously draw people in and keep them from getting close enough to analyze him. He doesn't worry about being boring. Sometimes his listeners get annoyed; they'd really like to know what goes on behind the surface of Art Shay, Photographer. They're all here, though, to make sure that Art Shay, Photographer, known for so long as a prolific photojournalist, finally gets his due in the art world.

Gellman is assembling Shay's Chicago civil rights photos into a show that will run at Roosevelt's Gage Gallery in September. Davidson is filming a feature-length documentary on Shay's life and work that he and his codirector, Ken Hanson, plan to screen at Sundance next year. And DeGlopper is, at the moment, busy trying to arrange more gallery shows.

"Art Shay: His Love and Life" opens March 6 at the Highland Park Art Center (100 yards, Shay notes, from the site of Titles, Inc., the rare and used bookstore Florence ran for 40 years). Another exhibit of Shay's civil rights work is currently on display in Pensacola, Florida. In May the Art Institute will show ten of Shay's photos from its own collection. And this week My Florence, a book version of a show that appeared last year at Columbia College, will be published by Seven Stories Press; it's the story in 70 photos, culled from 100,000 slides, of the Shays' long marriage, from their first meeting, in 1942 at a Catskills summer camp where she edited the newspaper and he played the bugle, to her funeral 70 years later.

But DeGlopper's ambitions for Shay are much greater. "I'm hoping for a major retrospective of 300 or 400 photos at a major museum in the next couple of years," she says. She's aiming for the Art Institute, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, or the International Center of Photography in New York. "She's ambitious for me," Shay says. He doesn't mind the ambition, or the attention.

"They're ranking me one of the great photographers of the last century," he says of the Art Institute show. "I sort of agree. I'm not as dead as some."

Muhammad Ali in 1961, when he was still Cassius Clay. “In terms of particulars,” says documentarian Ken Hanson, “this photo is as perfect as it gets.” - ART SHAY
  • Art Shay
  • Muhammad Ali in 1961, when he was still Cassius Clay. “In terms of particulars,” says documentarian Ken Hanson, “this photo is as perfect as it gets.”

Shay was born in the Bronx and grew up there during the Depression. His father was a Trotskyite in Latvia and a tailor in America. His mother ruled the family by "a subtle Jewish housewife tyranny," he wrote in Album for an Age. He took his first photo at 15. It was of his entry in the Soapbox Derby, and he used a camera he'd gotten from a cereal box. He earned extra money in high school taking "kiddie pictures." His first darkroom was the coal bin in the basement of his apartment building; he rigged an enlarger from a coffee can. He attended Brooklyn College for a year, until a chance meeting with a fellow student, a Jewish refugee from Cologne who told him about how her family had been murdered and how she had been forced into a German officers' brothel, convinced him he was wasting his time at school. He enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps and became a navigator. He survived 53 missions, including the 1944 bombing of Kassel, which killed 117 American fliers, and which he wrote about in his play, Where Are You Now, Jimmy Stewart?

After the war, Shay went to work as a reporter for Life. He became the San Francisco bureau chief when he was just 25, but after a story he assigned enraged then-governor Earl Warren (he pulled back the curtain in the booth where Warren was voting on Election Day in 1948 so his photographer could get a picture), he was demoted and transferred to Chicago. He quit three years later and struck out on his own as a freelance photojournalist.

One of the first big stories he pitched to Life was about Nelson Algren, just before he won the National Book Award for The Man With the Golden Arm. For several years Shay followed Algren on his peregrinations around the city; the photos serve as a visual counterpoint to Algren's prose poem Chicago: City on the Make. "There's aloneness in these pictures," says Stan Klein of Firecat Projects in Bucktown, which ran a show of 28 of Shay's Algren photos in December. "Algren and Shay are both observers. They needed each other to give the photos texture."

"If it had been in Life, it would've changed Nelson's life, and mine also," Shay says now. "His books would've taken off. He would've had half a million dollars for a new book. Life fucked it up beautifully. They thought it was too downbeat. It was all ready to go. I went to the Donnelley printing plant to see the layout. The essay space had been taken up by a story about a Mexican prison with conjugal rights. Nelson had won the National Book Award and that's the image they're picking. Life ain't fair."

Shay and Algren applied for a Guggenheim grant. They didn't get it; a trustee told them Algren's political history was considered too radical. Shay had trouble placing his work in the New York galleries; his Chicago gallery demanded a cut of the profits. He moved on. He began supplementing his magazine work with commercial jobs—mostly photo work for large corporations' annual reports—that helped pay the bills. He worked every day. Family vacations got rolled into out-of-town assignments. "When you're in demand," he says, "it's always hard to turn down real work."

In 1972, Shay's 20-year-old son, Harmon, disappeared in the "hippie jungles" of Miami. "It was the tragedy of my life," he says. "They never found the body. It cut my life in two. The year he died, I did eight annual reports. The next year, I just did two. It really broke me in half."

But he did what he always did: he kept working.

ART SHAY
  • Art Shay
Top: Shay's pictures, including Backyard Olympics, always tell a story; bottom: Shay has photographed life at Northbrook Court since the mall opened in 1976; "I was going there twice a week anyway," he says. - ART SHAY
  • Art Shay
  • Top: Shay's pictures, including Backyard Olympics, always tell a story; bottom: Shay has photographed life at Northbrook Court since the mall opened in 1976; "I was going there twice a week anyway," he says.

Ten years ago Shay hired DeGlopper to organize his archive. When she arrived, the clutter in the file room was in some places a foot deep. (In 1993, Shay won a contest sponsored by Home Office Computing magazine for having America's messiest home office. "I've never had the gift of neatness," he admits.) She's digitized 30,000 photos so far and has created a filing system for several hundred thousand.

In recent years Shay has started to think more about his legacy, and he wonders if the depth and breadth of his work may have harmed him. "I refused to specialize," he says. "[Sports photographer] Neil Leifer, one of my competitors, just sold his whole body of work for $9 million. Nobody's gonna buy my archive." Someone recently offered Shay $10,000 for his 1960s NFL shots. He turned the offer down. DeGlopper estimates it would have amounted to a dollar a picture.

Would it have made a difference if he'd decided to work out of New York instead of Chicago? "It was a conscious choice, settling here," he says. "The New York editors would need me. If I lived in New York, I'd need them. I'd have to camp on their doorsteps in New York the way some of my competitors did."

Ann Nathan, whose gallery currently represents Shay, isn't so sure. "He was more local," she says. "He never became national." Ken Hanson, the documentarian, theorizes that Shay was his own worst editor. "He loves all of his children equally," he says. "He can take a picture like the one of Muhammad Ali, and it's amazing—the tone, the pose, the composition, its place in history—and then present that equally with a silly pun of a busty woman serving food at a banquet with a sign."

During the 50s and 60s, when Shay was building his reputation, there was a sharp division between art photography and photojournalism, explains Jack Davidson, Hanson's codirector. "Telling a story in a picture about a place and time, the nuances and subtleties, was completely anathema to the art world," he says. "Now the world is coming around to seeing story-based work as legitimate and intriguing." And Shay, he believes, did more than just document the mid-20th century. "With the best of Art Shay's work, in just one frame he puts you in the space, lets you feel that moment in time and something tangible of its potential or consequences."

If Shay has similar thoughts, he's chosen not to share them (though he can't hide his disdain for Vivian Maier, who he thinks shot only what was "there" without adding anything else of interest). He's gleeful when Nathan's assistant calls to tell him that one of his Algren prints just sold. "I split the proceeds with Ann," he says. "So I get paid for just sitting here for a picture that's 60 years old.

"The market makes its own judgment," he adds. "To sell photos, you need to find a customer." Still, he wouldn't mind a major retrospective. "It would unearth things that have never been seen before."

So the excavation and organization of the archive will continue. "He doesn't think of moving," DeGlopper says. "Florence is here. And he still thinks maybe Harmon will come home."

He's still taking pictures. His hands are steady, and anyway he's long been in the habit of documenting his own life as carefully as he documented the world around him: he even took self-portraits during the early phases of his open-heart surgery, before the anesthesia kicked in.

"I shoot whatever I think is interesting," he says. "Always."

Shay in his bedroom. For most of his life, he's never been far from his camera, or a book. - ANDREA BAUER
  • Andrea Bauer
  • Shay in his bedroom. For most of his life, he's never been far from his camera, or a book.

Comments (17)

Showing 1-17 of 17

Add a comment
 

Add a comment