The Last Days of Art by Raju Peddada

Art Shay, the master visual diarist of America, passed away exactly a year ago. His gargantuan library of photographs, almost two million, were sifted once again, by his indefatigable and loyal archivist: Ms. Erica DeGlopper, for some unpublished masterpieces.
© Art Shay

{Art Shay, 1922-2018, The First Posthumous Exhibit… at the Gallery Victor Armendariz}

[Art Shay, the master visual diarist of America, passed away exactly a year ago. His gargantuan library of photographs, almost two million, were sifted once again, by his indefatigable and loyal archivist: Ms. Erica DeGlopper, for some unpublished masterpieces. She and Mr. Victor Armendariz, the curator-owner of a premier gallery in Chicago, culled a treat of an exhibit for us, which opened last Friday, May 3, 2019 – each photograph there, is a journal unto itself, of the unfolding of an American century.]

© Art Shay

“The privilege of the picture-maker, transmuting life into art, gross fact into elemental truth, was a gift in his hand of a value that alone perhaps among all others was absolute and beyond a question.”

– Percy Lubbock, 1879-1965, Literary Critic

“Advancing the field of photographic arts” is the credo of the prestigious LUCIE Lifetime Achievement Award, conferred upon Art Shay in 2017, at the Lincoln Center for the Arts. And, did he ever advance it, sometimes, at the cost of every other value and self. Here’s an illustration. In late September of 2012, I visited Shay to offer my condolences over Florence’s passing – who happened to be a dear friend as well. We had shared the same affliction: bibliomania. Being his critic, I wanted to delve into that psyche of his, dig into his labyrinthine faculties and ethics, as to why he would offend every conventional norm of decency and sensitivity to photograph his wife’s reaction to her oncologist’s verdict. “What was it that made you do it – was there no resistance?” I had asked.

He remained silent for a few seconds. Then, the usually pithy and reticent man said this, (his lines remain etched in my memory), “I had to, I hid behind the camera, didn’t want to show my… (silence, few gulps) besides, I felt this terrifying beauty of her vulnerability, a condition I never experienced… more profound than her privacy… when we are vulnerable, we ooze the radiance of life…” What he said that day evoked another of his exploits, the nude of Simone de Beauvoir. Violation of her privacy? Hardly, in fact, that shot by Shay epitomizes Beauvoir’s own power and liberated modernity. Florence also was not your average subject. Privacy is paradox, an oxymoron, political fodder – we are private with our loved ones, friends, but we are naked in front of strangers, and a myriad organizations that seem to possess all our laundry and skeletons… does that compute?

© Art Shay

Shay’s aesthetic spirit, his philosophical premise and visual criterion induced him to observe beauty’s effervescence in reality, facts and bitter truths of life. He pursued his avocation by discounting conventional sensibilities, excising his inhibition, going for the jugular. His way of viewing things was something complex, that only Nelson Algren comprehended – the pursuit of aesthetic in human wretchedness, and stories of struggles on skid row, the seedy, as well as the innocent side of existence. His photographs annihilate the futility of protocols, the swamps of conventions, in the singular aim to establish and prove that beauty presides, and is the conveyor of all our perpetually moving conditions.

Take for example the three photographs in the current exhibit (Gallery Victor Armendariz), 1. Alley joy – Chekhovian overtones, light, airy, broad daylight, a self contained tale almost, in the present, that beckons us to participate. Can you hear the screeches and exuberant shouts of kids? Do you sense any protocol: posing? Of course, such play by kids on the streets had vanished long ago, for several reasons. Now-a-days, alley “kids” translates to drugs and gang-bangers. Then, there’s the other photograph, 2. Three ages of women: The bride, the middle-aged and the old, seated. Dostoevskian undertones – can you hear the old lady’s cynical cackle at the vain? The three stages of denouement behind the veils of vanity. It’s a dark photograph, (not the background), one that seems to be receding into a fatal void.

Whether the atmosphere was contentious, like the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, or congenial, as in Hugh Hefner’s bedroom, where it seemed everyone was waiting to get undressed – he was that photographic thespian who was invisible to his subjects. Tutorials for all the aspirants? Certainly, I was one of them. Photography is a solitary occupation, and the intrusive component of it can be dangerous one, and Shay, who scoffed at barriers, had won his battles by risking everything.

He was the sole encyclopedia of collected experiences, ours. As I sat dourly in that Highland Park Hospital ICU last spring, where Art was ailing, I mentally flipped through the album of his life in melancholy, a diorama of sorts, that Daguerre would have been proud of. His life had unfolded like one long roll of film on the carousel of light, during the seminal historical events of the 20th century: the collapse of Ottoman empire in the east, the birth of communism in Russia, the gilded age here, and the Wiemar Republic in Europe, the denial, and a turbulent peace that incubated World War II. Then, his participation in it, as a B-24 (Liberator) Navigator, on scores of bombing missions over Germany. The peace time Shay wasn’t at peace either. His run-ins with life, itself are worthy of a tome.

In 2009, I had asked him, over coffee and cakes, in Highland Park, Illinois, “What is the most profound thing you had ever experienced?” Staring at a young woman passing by, he retorts, “Had? – I still am!” Turning to me in a leer, he said, “I just did… it surrounds us, moment to moment, from one station to another, the transience of beauty… we must recognize it, grasp it’s essence, and convey it along…” I interrupted him, “How to grasp it’s essence… is it taught somewhere?” “isn’t that a pity?” he says in earnest, then he adds, “Read literature… it’ll help you see better…” That was our maestro!

And finally, as an aesthete, critic and a photographer, it becomes incumbent of me, and as an imperative, to tread the same course Shay, our pathfinder, had hacked out of the wilderness of hesitation, vacuous protocols, and mocking societal doctrine of privacy, to shoot away with our cameras, to try and arrest that fleeting beauty for a moment, in our singular, as well as our collective conditions. I photographed Shay, despite warnings and threats from the Hospital Security and their attorneys. He never displayed any resistance by the way of his hands, or his eyes, while I shot his final condition. Instead, he looked at me directly, in encouragement, as if saying, “Carry on… now it’s my turn to yield.” My photographs of him, in that final state, were the celebration of our maestro, his spirit, his gumption and his humanity – it was a tribute.

In the end when everyone has left, or abandoned us, the only thing that’s left in our waning moments, is the realization and recognition that even in that condition, beauty is there with us. Shay’s visual diaries are an American journey – it’s a profound and piercing legacy bestowed on us – we must grasp its very essence and convey it along, as he had wanted, to the future generations.
[Copyright © Raju Peddada, May 6, 2019 – All Rights Reserved on the photographs and Text.]

© Raju Peddada

The Art Shay Posthumous Exhibit, Featuring Rare Autographed Prints. An Imperative!

Gallery Victor Armendariz, 300 West Superior Street, Chicago, IL 60654. Tel: 312-722-6447.

© Raju Peddada

© Raju Peddada

© Raju Peddada

© Raju Peddada

© Raju Peddada

Raju Peddada

Raju Peddada was born in India, and migrated to the United States in 1983. He is the founder and CEO for PEDDADA. COM since 1999, and also a producer/writer for Satyalu+Kristi Media, USA. He is a design provocateur, an originalist in design contemplation, who draws inspiration not from other designers, but from nature, history and literature. He has 22 Design Patents, and was also responsible for several critically acclaimed and sold out products launches to the high end luxury furnishings market. He has been editorially featured in scores of international culture-design magazines as the “Taste-maker,” in Interior Design, Clear, Dwell, Spaces, Domus, Abitare, Interni, Frame, Monitor, Objekt, Chicago, the Chicago Tribune, and Cable news. In addition he also is a freelance journalist, with over a 100 essays-articles- reviews in literary magazines like Swans.com, Bookforum, Spaces, and the NY Times. He is a photographer, who in the summer of 2017, released his exploratory thesis on “The Aesthetics of Ambiguity,” which essentially shifts the aesthetic paradigm, from the stillness aesthetic to that of ambiguity, in sensing the beauty of our movement and condition in the urban setting. Three photographic exhibits are in the offing. He is the author of four small books.

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