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Post Photographer Art Shay Dies at 96
Created by John Eipper on 05/12/18 10:31 AM

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Photographer Art Shay Dies at 96 (David Duggan, USA, 05/12/18 10:31 am)

Sorry to interrupt WAISers and their concerns with Iran, North Korea, Trump, and the future of the known universe, but I wanted to alert fellow art aficionados to the death of one of photography's all-time greats, Art Shay, at the age of 96.

Though he was born in the Bronx, Art was indelibly identified with Chicago, and though not a discernible follower of the "Chicago School" of photography of Harry Callahan, Aaron Siskind, and Yasuhiro Ishimoto (from the Illinois Institute of Technology's Institute of Design), I dare say that his work will live on as stellar examples of the art form.

Art led as full a life as can be imagined. During World War II, he was a navigator on Jimmy Stewart's B-24, and later memorialized him in his play "Where Have You Gone, Jimmy Stewart?", kind of a reverse homage to Tom Brokaw's "Greatest Generation." He wrote for Life magazine, and later became a free-lance photographer for Time-Life, shooting everyone from presidents (he photographed the first Kennedy-Nixon debate in 1960) to mobsters. A rare shot of Chicago mobster Tony "Big Tuna" Accardo in front of the lions at the Art Institute is a classic. The mob was not impressed and for a number of years until the Accardo-Giancana duopoly controlling the Outfit had passed control to the younger generation, every day his wife of 67 years, Florence, started his car, an almost unfathomable act of love. In 1972 his eldest son disappeared in Florida; his body has never been found.

Chicago writer Nelson Algren and Art were joined at the hip, and Art wrote a play about the tangled triangle relationship among Algren, Simone de Beauvoir, and Jean-Paul Sartre. After Simone had flown a rickety Corsair from Paris to an ice-cold Chicago February in the age before inter-continental jet travel, Art photographed her emerging from Algren's bathtub in his Wicker Park walk-up; his photograph of her backside as she looked in the mirror should be enough to convert the most cloistered monk. His style cannot be readily categorized: not a pure portraitist, his work ranks with Avedon and Skrebneski; not a pure "street photographer," his candids catch the "decisive moment" as perfectly as Henri Cartier-Bresson and the recently discovered Vivian Mayer (also from Chicago). The late Chicago film critic Roger Ebert said it as well as anyone:"Art Shay's photography shakes you up, sets you down gently, pats you on the head and then kicks you in the ass."

I met Art more than a few times at Chicago galleries where his work was often on display, and he was gracious and I dare say funny. The last time I saw him at one gallery, earlier this year, I mentioned to him that another gallery down the street (he was pretty much confined to a wheelchair at that time and the galleries, in old loft-warehouses, are not ADA-friendly) had several of his works for sale, including a Maris-Mantle portrait from 1961 and an early shot of a young defiant Cassius Clay (reprinted in the New York Times' obituary). He wondered what the asking price was. To show his amazing skill set, in addition to writing plays, he was also an age-group national racquetball champion.

Art Shay, Whose Camera Captured the Famous and the Everyday, Dies at 96


In these days when anyone with a cell phone and a photo-shop app can create "art," Art Shay now joins Edward Steichen, Ansel Adams, Cartier-Bresson and Callahan in that great darkroom in the sky, peering down through the lens of eternity on the world he so wonderfully portrayed. RIP.

JE comments:  One the greats, and David Duggan tells the story of Art's art better than anyone.  David, there's a new book in you:  David Duggan's Chicago:  Sports, Politics, and Art.

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