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Art Shay: That Was Then, Part One

By   Follow Me on Twitter     Message Joan Brunwasser     Permalink
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Photo credit: Jan Edelson

The New York Times Sunday Magazine ran my [heart surgery] story on its famous back page and Kathy Ryan, the picture editor, wrote me saying it was the most touching story they had run in 20 years. The layout included a 15mm Voigtlander wide-angle Leica shot - a grotesque self-portrait of me in an oxygen mask. Also, a dramatic shot of a big, strong black arm, wheeling me down the hall to my possible life or death. A picture of my wife in my post op room, forcefully installing my leg in a surgical stocking.

In the intervening years - in which my Time cover surgeon gloomily predicted the impossibility of aortic surgery, the facts brightened. Then, so did the odds of surviving aortic surgery rising from 92 % to 97%. I gambled and won. I'm 88 now, and will be due for a replacement in my late nineties. By then, they should have the odds even higher what with robotic cutting, placement, and diminution of the entering cut.

And I'm sure you'll be documenting every minute. You see yourself following in a tradition of the 19th century graphic artist, Honore' Daumier, rather than other photographers. Why is that, Art?

When I latched onto Daumier as a mentor, it was 1949, and studying his drawings, page after page, showed me what I was seeing with Nelson Algren in the courthouses and on the streets of Chicago's underside. Daumier's mastery of contrasts between the empowered and the powerless were exactly analogous to Algren's view. In one famous passage, Algren quotes a forlorn, black lady talking to the judge: "But who around here is talkin' for me?" I was there, got her picture and, I think, showed her being shushed up or "filed" away. I've always been a cartoon-idea person. I sold my very first one to Charles Addams of the New Yorker when I was 18. I carried his $5 check around until it mouldered. The idea: Some robotic lab technicians are constructing a human being. It was used and anthologized, but I think Addams blew the caption. His caption was: "What will they think of next?" Mine was: "As soon as we finish, I think we should make a wife for him."

I would have loved to have been a cartoonist but I can't draw. But my third real choice of profession would be as a playwright. My first play was produced professionally here in 1963 - A Clock for Nikita - a comedy about a young creative Russian who designs an alarm clock that plays Tchaikovsky, to wake the workers up happily. Fair reviews. Second was four years ago, Where Have You Gone, Jimmy Stewart? directed by the great David Mamet associate, Mike Nussbaum.

Let's take a break here. When we return for the conclusion of our interview, Art will tell us more about the creative process, his family, and the backstory on more Shay photographs. I hope you'll join us.
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***
Part two of this interview

All photos in this two-part interview by Art Shay, except where noted.
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Special thanks to Michael Collins for unstinting technical and editing assistance.

Additional thanks to Erica DeGlopper.

***

Art's blog at the chicagoist.com

Art's pictures are available from the Stephen Daiter Gallery, Chicago

Art's latest book Chicago's Nelson Algren (forward by David Mamet) is available at Amazon or from Seven Stories Press, NYC, NY.

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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)
 

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