[Preface: At a time when many a photographer’s reliance on equipment and software is incessant and endemic, Art Shay maintains his curmudgeonly simplicity, as if saying “fuck you!” by toting around a rangefinder Leica, to render his masterpieces. No photographer, dead or living, had ventured this far and wide to capture the murkiness of life, it’s wretchedness, as well as its glory and pretense. While others pursued mirages of clarity and illusions of still life, Shay chose the Dostoevskian gutter to illustrate life, its real fiber. Accompanying him occasionally was Nelson Algren, hunting for Faulknerian tales of the survival. I want to celebrate Shay, my friend and mentor, for his spearing wit and visual brilliance, that feline agility given a chance, his reticence that speaks volumes, and his cynicism, that sees through banality like a Great White spots a meal in the surf.]
“An important recorder of history!” – Garry Wills, Historian
“You are a naughty man!” responded an amused, flirtatious and nude Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986) to Art Shay, who had sneaked from behind the open door and shot a whole strip of her nudes, while she groomed herself in the bathroom. And, instead of slapping him she stroked him, with a cryptic compliment for the intrusion, and for obliterating prudence. In 1952, she had arrived in Chicago on a book tour for her magnum opus, “The Second Sex.” Beauvoir, at the time was having an affair with Nelson Algren (1909-1981), the National Book Award winner in 1949 for “The Man with the Golden Arm,” who, it so happens, was roughing it on Wabansia Avenue in Chicago, in $10 a month apartment, with no bathroom. When the time came for her to wash up, Algren requested his long time friend, Shay, to chaperon the lady to a friend’s bathroom – where the little adventure had unfolded!
Shay’s subject that summer, Beauvoir, was already a renowned thinker by the mid 20th century – an existentialist philosopher, who was Jean Paul-Sartre’s mistress, never flinched when he released the shutter several times, capturing, arguably, the most wanted photograph of the century. It revealed two masters that day – Beauvoir, the delectable philosopher, who flaunted her modernist sensibilities and sexual liberty. Second, Shay, who pounced on the moment like a feral cat.
Our stocky photojournalist, at a youthful 96, is a consummate opportunist, perpetually on the hunt, who was once the San Francisco’s bureau chief for LIFE magazine. His archivist and estate manager, Erica DeGlopper claims,“His genius is always on assignment.” He is a World War II veteran of over 50 bomber missions over Germany. He also is the deserved recipient of the LUCIE Award from the eponymous Foundation, in New York, for his contribution to the photographic arts. The other winners had been Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Evans, Sebastiao Salgado, Nick Ut and Arnold Newman.
Shay is singular, because, he also is an accomplished writer, unlike others, with scores of titles to his credit. He is a unique writer- photographer, who pursues Dostoevskian eloquence in the evocation of the human condition with his camera, and when writing, he visualizes like Vittorio Storaro or Gordon Willis (Oscar winning cinematographers) in the unfolding scenes. Capturing the irony in our condition is the mark of not only a great writer, but a prescient photographer as well. There is a binary heterotelic symbiosis between great photography and writing, because, both need visualizing – and, I have always enjoyed this crossover faculty in artists. I also resort to such devices: writing, becoming the catalyst for acute aesthetic discernment in visualizing – as in extempore photography, a pursuit, of not just the gratuitous and the contrived, but, contextual aesthetic, proposed in my thesis this past summer: “The Aesthetics of Ambiguity,” – a proposition that aesthetic is intrinsic to ambiguity: a fundamentally urban condition.
This brings me to my favorite street photograph by Shay, titled: “Sunday Morning on Madison” (also known as “Dutch Masters.”) A photograph so astounding and aesthetically charged that it induced me to pen a short story based on the characters in the photograph. Shay found it so convincing, that he had to immediately issue a disclaimer to the editor-publisher that my short, actually, was fiction, and the real story being that he and Algren, had been driving around Halsted and Madison streets, in 1949, on a Sunday morning looking for stories, when Shay was suddenly afforded the opportunity at the stop light, to get this photograph through the car window at the corner of Madison Street. In the discernment of many curating critics, this was, arguably, the greatest street photograph ever taken. It’s in the permanent photographic collection of The Art Institute of Chicago, and other noted museums. He gave me a signed print in 2007!
Here’s the link to that story: http://www.swans.com/library/art15/rajup08.html And, here is that perfect example of Shay’s coaching yours truly. Dated: February 4, 2009, 12.33 pm:
“very creative…excellent, you are a born novelist, BUT… it’s Madison Street not avenue. The avenue is in NY…It’s also Halsted Street… You might say, “snapped the picture with his beat-up Model D Leica and wide angle Biogen lens…” you should mention Nelson Algren’s name, logically, after his National Book Award win… Eliding cliches means cutting out stuff you’ve heard or red before: like muttering under the breath… total darkness…This whole notion might make a good play… dramatizing each of the characters into the picture… Maybe first we see whole, then without the faces. Then face by face, or body by body, fleshes into a play. Maybe each actor tells what brought him there at that moment… The Bridge at San Luis Rey?”
In person, he is primarily a listener, but a sardonic story teller – never missing an opportunity for a shutout. On the evening of June 23, 2007, I had invited him, his wife: Florence, a recognized intellectual in her own right (advising state governors, a rock star, and famous playwrights like David Mamet on rare books), the Chicago Tribune editor, and other friends over for dinner. During that raucous dinner, we each set about extolling our misadventures in life, trying to one-up each other over whose survival tale was dangerously glamorous, a close call.
Shay, sat still, like a bobcat in a pen full of mice frolicking over their exploits, and listened in benign amusement and restraint.
Then, when we all had exhausted our ammunition, he lapped us up. In a mockingly diffident tone, he told us about his exploit. During a supply flight in 1947, on a B-17 Flying Fortress, they had engine trouble, and were forced to crash-land on Newfoundland. The plane skidded right to the brink of a thousand foot cliff. With our eyes bulging and mouths open we drank in the details. Then, with a laconic smile, he claimed, that our ‘orifices’ had actually reminded him of the displaced toilet seat from the wreckage, through which he had taken a shot of the plane’s entrails – and “the crew had survived our excruciating banality,” he added, with an expansive leer. Silence, then a burst of applause.
He is humble and subtle, yet, is direct and provocative. In the summer of 2009, Shay and I were debating the function and obligations of a film critic. I posited that it was obligatory for a film critic to raise the bar of the audiences, by being didactic, a teacher proffering insights, and not just being a “Thumbs-up” cheerleader for everything that was released, implicating Roger Ebert, the film critic, indirectly – who, unbeknownst to me, was Shay’s dear friend. My proposition was based on my own convictions, and were corroborated in the essays by literary critics like Harold Bloom, Erich Auerbach and Northrop Frye. Shay, promptly forwarded my ‘flogging’ of Ebert to his friend, the same. Much later, I was able to decipher what Shay had done – he had tacitly agreed with me, but, instead of offending his friend, he simply had his own criticism be delivered in my words, by forwarding my email. Ebert responded, “Ouch… this is my toughest critic, yet, who’s he?”
Shay is the fountain of evocation. His 25,000 negatives are the triggers for the American panorama. Photographs, like the ones of Marlon Brando and Cassius Clay, that reveal chrysalises, of a maturing method thespian and a fighting machine, on the cusp of immortality. In the late 40s he photographed the nation rediscover itself. In the 50s, his lens saw the nation uncover itself: sexual revolution. In the 60s he experienced Dr. King’s power of words, and the Flower-Power against war. In the 70s, Carter’s cowering to the Iranians, and powerless people in gas lines. The 80s saw the deaths of his old friends, Algren and Beauvoir, and the powering of the conservatives, on Reagan’s coat tails. And, in the 90s, he saw the film go obsolete at digital speed. Historian, Garry Wills was right, he did indeed record the decades!
Shay’s exhibits are “receding” experiences, I traversed back in time in his photographs, losing myself in that melancholic sepia, over the dissolved decades and lost people I wish I had met. Photographs that linger well past the exhibits. However, this celebration is about the man – how his personality, his generosity, that sardonic wit and perspective had not only shaped his life, but his oeuvre as well – and how it also gave many a nascent writer-and-photographer insights into the oracular truths on being organic in creativity and seizing the moment. He also possessed the relentless spirit of encouragement!
Here’s an example of Shay’s encouragement, in bawdy and chiding wit:
“… Peddada’s brilliant look at luxury is an absolute Kama Sutra of how we have fucked with luxury and it has fucked us, that is, fucking us. He reminds me of what I imprecisely remember of Milton’s Aereopagitica. Not its carping at Catholics and its god-fearing blather, but of its prescience about the world we inherited, caparisoned with luxuries, and fucked up. Despite shaking our invincible locks and emulating a New World eagle, pointing our clear, undazzled gaze at the full mid-day beam of a sunny world we never made. And have just squandered. I think the (suddenly controversial) Milton would have been amazed at the wisdom of a small-town Indian’s undazzaled gaze at our society. His sons, Raju and Atman are lucky…”
– Art Shay, February 9, 2009 – Article he was referring to: http://www.swans.com/library/art15/rajup07.html
Sometimes, when I meander in wonder, in the infinite alley of concatenation, I’m astonished. As a pubescent boy I had seen “The Second Sex” by Beauvoir on my dad’s shelf – it was an Aha! Moment, I remember being proud of him, for being cool, modern. Several decades elapse, and now, I possess that iconic Beauvoir nude by Shay. Coincidence, serendipity? I don’t know, but, it’s one very long inexplicable
thread, connecting my father, boyhood and my ‘middle-hood’ – inscrutable concatenation! More than anything I am grateful, for brushing up against this living personification of creativity and history – who once had personally consulted with Ernest Hemingway during the war. Was a buddy to Nelson Algren, and his transcontinental love: Simone de Beauvoir, who then was linked to Jean Paul-Sartre, who in turn, was pals with Albert Camus and James Joyce. See the literary knots, the DNA of friendships? As if this was not enough, his cables had also pulled up the curtain on Marcel Marceau, in Chicago. Yet, despite his sphere of stars, he was down to earth, and real!
Here’s another example of a real maestro’s quickfire wisdom — May 21, 2010, 2.22 pm:
“I want to sound cryptic as well as overt, simultaneously – a word like ass or arse, even buttocks are limiting in expressing the aesthetic of woman’s… they are pejorative – any solution? I asked.
Shay’s instant response, as if waiting for that question months: “Try the word callipygian – has several iterations.”
One cannot not help but agree with this notion, that if a man could risk fifty plus bombing missions over Germany in World War II, survive a plane crash on a desolate ice field, yet, retain his humor, and top that in a fracas with a vice presidential candidate, he would be depleted of audacity and gumption. Not a chance! He had the chutzpah to risk getting censured by a French intellectual icon, no less, for sneaking behind to capture her derriere. Was it for himself or posterity is a matter of deep conjecture. And, wouldn’t you know, promptly after this little escapade, Hugh Hefner was his new best friend! He lived on the edge, and so it goes. For me, connecting with him, was being in touch with it all! Thank you, Art, for being our photographic sage!
Postscript: April 13, 2018, 4.32 am: At four years short of a 100th birth anniversary, Shay’s CPU is firing on all circuits when I and his youngest son, a dear friend, Steve Shay, visited with him this morning. And despite ailing, in an emaciated state, he encouraged my photography, and in his point blank eye contact, he seemed to convey this: “You all cannot escape this… it’s inevitable! We, usually, are never conscious of history unfolding in front of our eyes – but, I was this morning, and realized how Shay had dragged his vanished constellation of friends, from the early and mid 20th century, well into the 21st – in his evocative photography. [Copyright © Raju Peddada, April 15, 2018]