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Art Shay: That Was Then, Part One

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My guest today is long-time photographer and writer, Art Shay. Welcome to OpEdNews, Art. You've captured a great deal of history while plying your trade. You've photographed the powerful and famous as well as the totally unknown. I've read that you can remember most of the cameras, lenses and exposures used in the countless shots taken over your long career. What was your very first camera and how did you come by it in the first place?

Photo credit: Derek Nordstrom

The war intervened, during which you were navigator on B-24s that flew 52 missions. When you returned, your career began to take off, no more department store displays or corpses in churches. How did you get your break at Life Magazine?

It was March 23, 1947 and I was a navigator for an Air Transport Squadron, flying missions out of the Pentagon. I had stayed in the Air Force when the war ended. As an aspiring writer and an omniverous reader, I enjoyed flying all over the shrinking world as a 1st Lieutenant on flying pay that came to around $10,000 a year. It was more money than anyone had ever made in my family. I had a beautiful wife, a lovely new daughter, and the nine months I had spent at Brooklyn College had not been joyous. I wanted to be a writer or Shakespeare teacher. I had worked my way through high school, barely earning the 20 cent round-trip subway fare, taking pictures of kids and window displays. From the Bronx to and from Brooklyn College, it was an hour and a half each way. Now, at 24, I also had a "36 Plymouth coupe, a Leica and a Rolleiflex, bought from Holocaust survivors in London.

I was about to fly my most memorable mission from Washington. We had just missed transporting a USO troop with a planeload of WACs to postwar Germany. But now we were merely flying an empty C-54 when, at 250 mph or so, we hit a snowstorm over Prince Edward Island. It was Sunday, March 23rd, 1947 and our gas stop would be in Newfoundland. Flying blind, we were talking to the tower at Harmon Field, 30 miles away, who ordered us to head north and let down over the water until we'd cleared the storm. Our maps showed no mountain higher than 2200 feet. I was standing between pilot and co-pilot, peering ahead from our storm-tossed plane, desperately trying to see Harmon Field, which the tower said was bathed in sunshine. Suddenly we crashed; it was as if we had driven a car at high speed over a two-foot curb.

The pilots cursed as they lost control and I hit the floor. We seemed to be slip-sliding on the water. In 20 seconds of tobogganing, while I was curled in a tight ball waiting for the second crash, I said, "Goodbye, Jane" to my daughter who was six months old that day. Suddenly, we came to a smooth stop, as on an elevator gone mad, then sane. We figured out that we had crashed a couple of hundred yards back on a snowbank and slid all the way down to within half a football field of a 1500-foot drop. Had we not crashed, we would have flown into the looming mountain.

A helicopter kit was flown up from Hamilton Field, Brooklyn, and reassembled to lift us off the mountain. An Air Force chaplain had visited Florence that day to tell her to expect the worst; very few fliers survived crashes in the mountains. Her mother instantly went into mourning but Florence was calmer, she knew I'd survive. Jane - who has just been accorded the LA Bar's highest award for practicing Intellectual Property law - had just learned to say,"Da-da".

I resourcefully peddled my pictures of the crash to the AP and then Life and Look Magazines. To Look after Life had made fifty prints before they discovered they had pictured a European plane crash in the snow, a few weeks earlier. Handing me the prints, Joe Thorndike, the editor of Life who had been reading over my shoulder as I teletyped my story to the Washington Post , said, "Lieutenant, how would you like to work for Life as a writer?" I shook my head, "How about as a photographer?" "We've already got too many photographers - all these refugees. " Alfred Eisenstaedt was politely waiting to speak to Thorndike.

Bottom line - Look used my Life prints for a four-page story whose captions I wrote to their layout. Look editor Jack Gunther, offered me a job as a photographer. I'd have a chance to work with their newest hire - fotog, Stanley Kubrick. (Poor Jack, fascinated with wartime aviation, and a WW2 survivor - would die in the mid-air collision of two airliners over Bryce Canyon in Utah, six weeks later.)

The Washington Post did a big first-person layout, and their editor, Phil Graham, offered me a job as a feature writer for $12,000 a year. He knew my work. I had scored a full-page D-Day poem in his paper, as well as seven other lead stories, in his think section in 1946-7.

It was a toss of the mental coin. I figured I could always be a newspaper writer - so Art Buchwald was hired by the Post instead of me, I think. Look was OK, but not Life. Look was like the Chicago Trib, I was told, kind of a hayseed outfit. Life had the cachet that 60 Minutes does now. So I took the Life job.

I distinguished myself one night after I'd been there six weeks. I was straightening out a story I had worked on at the Waldorf, doing the captions on the Forbes celebration for the 50 men who had made America great. I was correcting a story that was about to go to bed with wrongly-identified Forbes business tycoons. The art director, at home, sounded drunken and I couldn't reach anyone else. So I wrestled my way through Life's guard structure to the small building across the street, where they kept their darkroom and negatives. I found the file of fotog Al Fenn, printed the six proper negatives on Life 's enlarger, pasted them over the bad pictures. I then raced my new layout to the plane at LaGuardia waiting to fly Life 's next issue to the Donnelly plant in Chicago.

Next working day, Managing Editor Ed Thompson thumped my back and shook my hand. "You smart f*cking little Jew - where'd you learn to make a darkroom print?" He shook his head and offered me a promotion as a Washington, DC reporter for Life and Time. From there, I became Life's youngest bureau chief. At 26, I found myself in San Francisco. Eight weeks, into my reign, I had a contretemps with Earl Warren. On Election morning, 1948, he posed for five or six phony "voting" pictures. I wanted my fotog to get him actually voting - for a story to be called, "How many times did Warren vote?"

So much for one of your little questions! (You are giving me an excellent chance to improve on my Album autobiography of the year 2000!)

My pleasure! You've published dozens of books and your photographs have graced the covers of 1,000 magazines beyond Life and Time, including Sports Illustrated, Playboy, Esquire and Boy's Life. That's a really large body of work. I recently read about one of your more outlandish projects, although I'd bet that there were plenty more. This one has to do with heart surgery. Can you share that episode, or should I say escapade?
Life Magazine had accepted my suggestion that we do a picture story on the drama of open-heart surgery at Cleveland Clinic. All scrubbed, all cameras sanitized, permitted to shoot from a balcony just over the operating field, there I was documenting the prying open of a chest, the fishing around inside the chest cavity, the interactions of nurses and MDs. Beautiful pictures, with one fault: the first three patients died on the table. A tall, Norwegian nurse, who was visiting from her cardiac hospital in India, nudged me at the last death. "Did you see that?" she whispered. "He killed him." She was referring to what she regarded as an accidental swipe of a tiny curved blade attached to one surgeon's little finger. I had been hoping for post-operative pictures of parents and children crying tears of joy. Our project collapsed on itself.

So, nearly 20 years later, there I was on the Northwestern University Hospital operating table, about to have my worn out aortic valve replaced by one from a pig. I decided to photograph my experience, and considering my reputation in Chicago as a world-class photo journalist, the hospital let me shoot at will, until I went under. The last thing I did was set a camera for one of the nurses to shoot a frame or two of me opened up. She got a terrific shot of my grand opening - but managed to include the replacement valve, dead sharp, hovering on a small holder, just over the place it was bound to go. It looked like a condom on a foot-long balloon stick. The best picture, I think, showed me on the gurney, ready to go under, Nikon on my chest. It's been published many times since and used, along with the rest of my take, as a teaching tool

The condom regulating my aortic blood flow carried me through an active 18 years - including the North American singles Golden Masters Racquetball Championship in 1982, when I beat seven other 60-year olds from all over the continent.

Do you still play? And why is your group called Fruit Juices?

I stopped this year. Arthritic knees. My daughter named the 10 of us who began from the picture she took of us in front of the Fruit Juices machine in the locker room.

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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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