Art Shay Q&A

This article by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in Pioneer Press on March 28-29, 2007.

Over the last six decades, Art Shay has photographed everything from heroin addicts on Chicago streets to movie stars like Marlon Brando.

Shay, a native of the Bronx who has lived in Deerfield for 53 years, captured life’s humorous little moments as well as dramatic, earth-shaking events, such as the 1968 Democratic convention.

On Saturday, as Shay celebrates his 85th birthday, the Chicago History Museum will open an exhibit called “The Essential Art Shay: Selected Photographs.” Also, through May 26, Chicago’s Stephen Daiter Gallery is showcasing Shay photos along with a companion book, “Art Shay: Chicago Accent.”

And on April 24, Shay’s latest book, “Chicago’s Nelson Algren,” will come out, updating and expanding his earlier “Nelson Algren’s Chicago.”

“Art succeeded in a lot of ways because he is extremely versatile and ambitious, and his style is somewhat eclectic,” said Leigh Moran, collection manager for prints and photographs at the Chicago History Museum.

Shay spoke about his long career in a recent phone interview.

Q: As a young man, how did Chicago strike you?

A: I came from a sunny San Francisco, where I had been deposed as Life’s youngest bureau chief. I arrived in Chicago on a November or December gray day, came into Midway airport, and the cab driver took me on a $9 ride instead of a $4 ride. That was my first exposure to Chicago crime.

I liked the city because it’s the same sort of city that I am a person. It’s sort of rough-edged with a lot of intellectuality if you look for it. And if you don’t, well (expletive) it.

Q: You’re both a photographer and a writer. How do you balance the two?

A: I’m a writer by trade. I’ll quote Chekhov for you, though of course I’m not in his league. He said he was a doctor first, then a writer. He said, “I feel that medicine is my wife, and playwriting is my mistress. When I tire of one, I go to the other.”

I began as a kid in high school, writing for my high school paper and during my nine months in college before I went into World War II as a flyboy.

My first published picture was of a midair collision in England in ’44, when I was coming back from a mission. The sky was full of planes and I just pointed the Leica up and all of a sudden, two of the planes hit. I had about 10 shots left on the Leica roll and I kept shooting — shoot, wind, shoot, wind — as they came down with the plumes of smoke, with this colonel pulling at me, saying, “You can’t shoot that, lieutenant, it’s restricted.” I kept moving away, shooting the (expletive) pictures. Anyway, they ended up in Look.

Q: Some photographers take many shots, and others bide their time and take only a few. Which are you?

A: The first category. In 1960, for the Kennedy-Nixon debate, I bought three new motorized cameras that had just come out, took about four frames per second, Nikons. I knew we were only going to have two minutes with the candidates.

That’s when Kennedy spoke to me. I was down loading the cameras and this guy taps me on the shoulder and says, “Say, where does a fellow take a whiz around here?”

We had literally two minutes. I shot Kennedy and Nixon together. I had three motorized cameras, four frames a second. In effect, I had 90 usable color frames, of which Time used one full page.

Q: Your eldest son, Harmon, disappeared in 1972, when he was hitchhiking in Florida. How have you coped with that?

A: Not too well. He was an amazing kid who had 800 out of 800 on his SAT. He was sixth in his class at Deerfield…

He goes hitchhiking toward Lauderdale from Miami. And that’s the last we — he called his grandma and said, “I met some people. I’ll be back tomorrow or the next day.” And there’s no tomorrow and there’s no next day.

So we went down there, like people in a TV show. But we’ve never had a body, never had anything. We just know he’s dead. So, I was 50 at the time, and that broke my life in two.

We had four other kids, but this just was something you can’t really handle. I still can’t. I still drive along and occasionally cry. I talk to him.

That’s why I’m especially sensitive to the losses in Iraq, knowing that each family is bearing the kind of thing that I’m bearing. I went through (World War II), and would gladly have given my life up for my country. … But that seemed to me a war worth fighting. This one doesn’t. They project those pictures (on television news) of these bright young soldiers, guys and girls, and I just weep and turn it off.

Q: As a photographer, do you see the world differently?

A: As a photographer, the camera is really an extension of the eye. When we’re kids, we all think we see the world privately, the way we do and nobody sees it the same way. And then, when you get older, you realize everybody sees it the same way. But when you get older still, you realize you were right the first time.