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Sci Tech    H2'ed 1/6/11

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 exposà , 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?

I can't remain serious in the face of blame or praise. I was born with the gift of laughter and a sense that the world is mad. I wish I could be more serious. My pictures mirror my personality. Irreverent, shocking, uncaring about most consequences, invasion of everyone's privacy, especially because everyone, including me, is so defensive about their privacy. I truly, truly can't take myself, my fame or even my innate modesty seriously.
Somehow, my restless brain always comes up with a punchline or punch picture that, for me (and for many of my collectors) puts my point of view into the perspective of my world view - which is really an inquisitive and amused glare at all the pretensions most of us live by. I'd be content to be a .285 hitter all my life, but fortune and skill have conspired me to hit .325 as I passed 80. A few critics who've reassessed me, put me over .400. I bless them for the attention, but I don't believe I'm that good. It's fun, sometimes, to be wrong about something like this.

What keeps me from being impossible to live with? I think it's my basic modesty... but I open your question to my wife, Florence. b*tch - you answer the nice lady...

Florence: Very funny. I'm not saying a thing. She asked a good question, though.

You see? You learn how to shut up people who might embarrass you... Florence thought my line: "b*tch, why don't you, etc..." was very funny. That's how we stay together - knowing what we each regard as funny and non-threatening.

You've been married only slightly less than forever. Anything to share on how to make it work?

We love, respect and admire each other's various achievements and attractiveness to other people and vice versa. The key to marital longevity is not to hold grudges longer than a few minutes and pave over the emotional rough spots on the marital road. Of course, the luck of good health is important. I've had three surgeries this year [but] my hand-eye coordination has been gratifyingly better than that of some players half my age. I've written eight books on racquetball and coached perhaps ten relatives - including grandchildren and friends. I do enjoy myself and take delight in my children, grandchildren and nieces and nephews, most of whom are great achievers and enjoy collecting my pictures for their walls.

You've achieved an additional modicum of fame for composing effective personal ad copy. Would you care to share that story with our readers?

I know a dear classy lady who collected my pictures when they were $350 each. We usually had lunch every two weeks. There came a lunch when she looked unkempt and stricken. "My husband died," she explained. "What would you do if Florence died?" I told her, I'd write the following ad in the NY Review of Books. "Newly widowed, athletic author-photographer of repute, would like to meet smart lady."

"I couldn't write an ad," she said. I wrote one for her on a napkin. Something like: "Stately, independent widow, usually well Lord & Taylored, would like to meet interesting man - object friendship." She thus "met" a world-class paleontologist. A year later, they were married. At the wedding, the lady told the above story and three ladies came up to ask me to help them write ads. I especially liked the groom's comment when I asked him how he felt: "As if I had just won the lottery." The four of us have been dining together at the Tomato about once a month.

You seem to really enjoy yourself. It's lovely. Do you anticipate ever slowing down?

No, mutatis mutandis. I play life the way I played racquetball until I got my national ranking at 60, and won two Illinois state senior titles a year or so later - full out. Life is like flying. You slow down, you fall. It was my mother, Molly, who really initiated the well-meaning WW2 phrase to me, her Jewish son, in flying school... I had it on a Bronx postcard to San Marcos, TX. "Fly slow, Artie, until you get used to it and stay close to the ground. Don't rush everything like you always do."

Well, you've certainly crammed a lot into one lifetime, Art. It's been a great pleasure talking with you. Thanks so much. And, for our readers, a few more of Art's shots with a little commentary. Enjoy!

Shay Sampler

After Adam Gopnik, of the New Yorker, [January 28, 2008] referred to my picture as causing a moral commotion in France. But he lumped Algren's treatment of Simone with Sarkosy's treatment of his nude model wife, implying that Nelson had ordered up a picture of de Beauvoir. "Pooh! Nelson would rather have died than asked for a souvenir nude picture of a girl friend."
It was an old-fashioned Life Magazine "sneak picture." I would ultimately do perhaps 100 "sneak" pictures for Time, Life, Fortune and Sports Illustrated, many involving the Mafias in 10 different states. The Paris Foto Show, at the Louvre several weeks ago, (Daiter Gallery's exhibit) hung both Simone nudes, and the older dorsal one was sold to the print acquirer of the Smithsonian, possibly for his own collection. The Sun-Times quoted me, "My de Beauvoirs hung at the Louvre one floor below da Vinci's Mona Lisa. It took Leonardo 400 years to hang in the Louvre and I did it in a mere 88."

Betsy Noxon, Joni Dobson, Libby Hurley, Hope Martin and Nancy Hurst.

This is a summer 2010 picture for an upcoming book jacket showing a group of North Shore tri-athletes, most in their forties, and their techniques for staying fit.

Betsy Noxon adds: Tri The Journey, a women's inspirational guide to becoming a triathlete in 12 weeks. It features women's stories of how they began training, overcame obstacles, and completed a tri - transforming their lives. It's also a how-to book with a training guide - for all ages! Book available Jan 15.

Nelson Algren is shown, center, playing poker with the St. Louis junkie-dealer he used as a model for Frankie Machine [as played by Frank Sinatra] in The Man with the Golden Arm. Algren was a compulsive poker player. In a basement room of a junkie hangout bar at Damen and Division.

The "Backyard Olympics" was shot in the early sixties for, of all people, Forbes Magazine doing a story on the underside of Chicago. It also ran as a two-page cover on a Blue Cross publication, and in several photo magazines, and sells nicely in the galleries. Collectors like the upbeat feeling in it. In January 2011, a French publisher doing a translation of Algren's novella, Entrapment, will use it as the book jacket. The book features two of my nudes as well as a brilliant forward by me.

This junk man, crossing the retired trolley tracks of Milwaukee Avenue, delivers his cargo to a wholesaler on Madison Street. 1949. This picture has always fascinated me because Daiter Gallery has a similar shot made in Paris by the great Andrà Kertesz. It sells for $108,000, a price mine won't reach until I'm dead about 10 years.

For some reason, my 1967 cover of the great Yaz breaking some kind of record in Cleveland is popular with collectors from Boston. One sold last week to such a fine photo technician, Charlie Dodge, who now works in New Mexico [or rather, sold secretly to his wife as the Christmas present he always wanted]. I think Yaz is from his home town.

In a Brooklyn subway chungum [Brooklynese for chewing gum] mirror. It's the mental image I carry of myself that helps me meet reality as I would if I had been frozen, sentient at 40. It's why women of 80 still go to beauty parlors and fuss with their makeup in the mirror before venturing out in public.

This picture, through a cold window at midnight on Ashland Avenue, shows life in an all-night beauty shop in a tough neighborhood. It's one of my very favorite pictures, and one of my gallery manager's, Paul Berlanga at Daiter, because it encapsulates everything I ever learned about making an image that reflects meaning.
To me, the bubble-headed manikins are merely window dressing. They frame (on a setting that fortuitously looks like a little stage) an almost hidden woman of six or so decades, sitting under what looks like a Martian drier. The dummy dolls, it seems to me, are what we want to look like - the lady is what we really look like. Algren was with me when I took the picture, and we both exulted about it afterwards, knowing we had gotten a two-page picture for our book, Nelson Algren's Chicago. Alas, he didn't live long enough to see in print.
Bonus: "In 1953, Joe Thorndike, the former editor of Life, was asked who he would have sent to cover the Second Coming, great portraitist Philipppe Halsman, or world- class street fotog, Art Shay. He told the outraged Halsman, "I'd choose Art, because while you were setting up your tripod to photograph Jesus, Shay would have made 36 pictures and gotten a release..'"

All photos in this two-part interview by Art Shay, except where noted.

Special thanks to Michael Collins for unstinting technical and editing assistance.

Additional thanks to Erica DeGlopper.


Part One of my interview with Art

Art's blog at the

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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