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Art Shay: That Was Then, Part Two

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Welcome back for the second half of my interview with famed photojournalist, Art Shay. You've snapped a boatload of shots over the years, Art. Is there anyone or anything that you haven't yet captured on film that you'd still like to?

Yes - I'd like to cover a legitimate campaign in Congress to clean itself of accepting cash from companies and individuals who use their money to override the votes of all of us. Case in point: Sen. Lieberman, a generally good senator, protesting on moral grounds that big pharma should have its way with our health program. Turns out he and his wife have received between three and five million from the drug industry in his past two terms. Half our laws are being written by lobbyists. The above is the reason democracy failed in Ancient Greece and it is failing here. Of course, we are 20 plus years from even broaching this kind of reform. So to answer your question, I wish I were alive to cover it.

I made a start as a Time-Life staff reporter in Washington in 1948, when my photographer and I detailed the power of the butter lobby and how it was keeping the housewife from buying colored (yellow) margarine in the stores. Until our expose, the housewife had to color her own white marge in the kitchen from a disgusting little plastic tube holding dye. All in the interest of keeping butter supreme as our national spread. Lobbyist Eugene Holzman led the powerful lobby on a budget of $36,000 a year! There are now some 3,000 lobbyists in Washington and $36,000 wouldn't even cover their tab for free lunches for congresspersons.

I believe Jon Stewart is doing the grunt work that we on Life used to do in keeping Congress in focus. When he exposes what x said then and what he's saying now - McCain, for example - Stewart is using the kind of satire that good magazine photography uses. When the press picked up on the Weeper of the House and he tried to blame the press for scorning him because of a physical failing - he forgot two things: one, he mocked Pelosi's eye tic, and two, he had consistently voted against all the poor people he purported to be crying over.

A consistent 95% against everything. My past work as a mocker of mendacious power leads directly to Jon Stewart. What I would do now - given time, energy and a felicitous venue - would be to sharpen his focus. I have just begun to do this on my new website. It appears on once a week, and the first few pictures and irreverent captions I've "published" have drawn 4,300 hits in the first three days. On the same site, a story on Rahm Emanuel has only garnered 750 hits.

That's a lot of hits. I know we're jumping around but let's discuss the creative impulse for a moment; I'm fascinated by the process. Do you just wander around looking for shots or do you head out with something very specific in mind?

When I was on assignment - like, eight days a week, my eye was ever the hunter in employ of my mission. Good example: my early Time picture of Sen. McCarthy at the Stockyards Inn. I "covered" his speech - but also got a great image of him juxtaposed with a circular ceiling lamp - giving him an unearned halo, underlying how little fit he was to wear one. Most of my pictures were taken in off moments of great event assignments, or just wandering around with one or another of my five kids. Parades, parks, visits of the likes of JFK. My daughter Jane - the famous LA lawyer (Google Jane Shay Wald) was the first law student to win a case in the US Supreme Court when she was a law student at De Paul.


One day - 1959 - during a terrible racial argument in Deerfield over "letting" blacks move into our lily white town, into $46,000 houses "they'll be sure to turn into rooming house slums"... my wife heard Eleanor Roosevelt was coming to town to help our cause. (I was PR director for us liberals.) Florence kept Jane out of school to meet and talk to the great lady. A newspaper picture commemorates the event. And Jane's interest in human rights and liberal politics has been strong. Her Supreme Court case involved getting payments of relief funds to kids adopted by blood relatives. Gov. Jim Thompson told me, "Your daughter cost the state of Illinois $20 million..."

In Seattle, my brilliant photographer-writer son Steve is the only reporter doing a thorough job on the despicable murder conviction of Amanda Knox, the American student being railroaded. He's gotten close to her Seattle family and is quoted by the bigger papers on the story and by authors doing books on it. His modus? Getting close to her Seattle family.

I've loved the camera since I was 12 or so. When I was 17, I took a picture in a snowfall of a truck slip-siding to a halt on the Boston Post Road. Soon, another truck came up to push. Both trucks had their provenance printed on their sides: Co-Op Co. A third Co-Op truck got into the act - and the picture is still funny.

Another time, on a Hammond Organ five-buck assignment, there on the subway was a black guy, drunk and asleep. His profile lay up against an Aunt Jemima cereal ad in which Jemima was holding out a spoonful of cereal. Her picture was against a subway bulwark, so it looked like she was feeding the sleeping man. Trouble was the film was ASA 10, the light was poor, and I could only shoot the requisite seven-second time exposures when the train was at rest. I overrode my station by seven stops in order to get two usable frames. Alas, my mother accidentally discarded those negatives during WW2. They would still have been very publishable.

You're obviously proud of your kids, and deservedly so. Three of them have followed in your footsteps and are photographers too. How does that feel? Do you sit around and talk shop all the time?

Actually, once the kids learned their craft - usually from schlepping camera and light cases for me since they were eight - we've managed to solve photo problems on the phone. Significantly, my son Dick answers my questions about sophisticated digital problems. I help him and the others with occasional marketing advice.

Your photography appeals to people of all ages. One of your fans is rock singer/songwriter Billy Corgan of The Smashing Pumpkins. That has led to an interesting collaboration. What can you tell our readers about it?

Florence and her rockstar-poet-book fancier-friend Billy Corgan bonded about four years ago at Titles, Inc., her rare book store in Highland Park. He's also a picture collector, owning Man Rays, Kerteszes and Lartigues. In the last year or so, he's become my friend and a collector of mine. The other day, he peeped into my car trunk and bought a big rare print of Muddy Waters at age 35, strumming and holding his wife. It'll go up on his studio wall with some early Beatles pictures.

He's hired me to do a three-year project on him and his new band that is creating 41 new works. Studio's nearby and I drop in every now and then when he's in town. He says he read my Nelson Algren's Chicago book in one sitting and that's what impelled him to hire me. He recently wrote a glowing quote about my work for a Tribune article on me by Don Liebensohn. Corgan comes over some Sunday mornings for breakfast, the last time with his cute Aussie rock star girl friend of 25. They're at her family home in Brisbane for the holidays.

You're really good at so many things - photography, writing, racquetball, puns, cartoon ideas. What can't you do, besides drawing, that you wish you could? And what keeps you from being impossible to live with?

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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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Part two is even better than part one. This is a ... by Michael Collins on Thursday, Jan 6, 2011 at 9:47:56 AM
He was an easy interview - stories up the wazoo! T... by Joan Brunwasser on Thursday, Jan 6, 2011 at 10:16:00 AM
Well done.... by Laura Roberts on Thursday, Jan 6, 2011 at 3:41:33 PM
he's a fun guy who's packed a lot in his life. we ... by Joan Brunwasser on Thursday, Jan 6, 2011 at 4:06:17 PM