Noted Chicago photographer reflects on achievements

By Assistant Campus Editor

Art Shay picked up his father’s Kodak camera at the age of 14. Now, 77 years later at age 91, he has published 30,000 pictures and photographed 1,100 covers for prominent magazines such as Time and Sports Illustrated. He has authored approximately 60 books and at 26 years old was working in San Francisco as Life Magazine’s youngest bureau chief.

The Chicago-based photographer is now bringing his talents together for his exhibit “My Florence,” which debuted at Columbia’s Museum of Contemporary Photography, 600 S. Michigan Ave. Jan. 27 and will run through May 24.

The exhibit is laid out like a storybook, walking through Shay’s 67-year marriage to his late wife Florence, who passed away a year ago from ovarian cancer. This exhibit is Shay’s way of commemorating their time together, he said.

During his prolific career, Shay photographed many notable celebrities including JFK, Elizabeth Taylor, Judy Garland and famed Chicago mobster Tony Accardo, nicknamed Big Tuna.

Shay’s picture of Accardo was hung as an exhibition piece, which the Accardo family later bought six copies of. “They must have really liked the picture,” Shay said.

Although photography is his main trade, Shay has dabbled in many media including print journalism and creative writing. Throughout World War II, Shay wrote 15–20 articles for the Washington Post, which printed a full-page of his blank verse poetry after the war.

Shay flew 52 combat missions as a navigator in World War II and never abandoned his camera. Being a navigator took up most of his photography time, he said, making it difficult to keep up with his pictures, so Shay would write whenever he could. Shay also had one of his wartime poems about his first solo flight published in the American Poet Magazine.

Shay also taught an advanced photojournalism class at Columbia, which eventually made him realize that education was not something he wanted to continue in the future.

The Chronicle sat down with Shay to chat about Chicago, his favorite subjects and  “My Florence.”

THE CHRONICLE: What inspired you to pursue photography?

ART SHAY: I shot pictures in the neighborhood where I grew up. It was  about two to three miles from the Bronx Zoo. There, I would take pictures of animals and kids and sports, whatever interested me. I worked my way through high school, taking snapshots of the plays that my local grade school was performing. I sold them for 25 cents apiece.

CC: How did you end up in Chicago?

AS: I took a magazine job and did three years on Life as a reporter and the bureau chief of San Francisco. I had got in an argument with Gov. [Earl] Warren, who was running for vice president, because  we tried to take a picture of him voting for himself. They sent me to Chicago to mature. So I stayed and matured here for a year, and then I left the magazine and went out on my own.

CC: What kind of stories were you known for writing?

AS: I began to specialize in crime stories. I must have done about 50 or 60 of them for Time, Life, Fortune, Sports Illustrated and Saturday Evening Post. I became known for that kind of story.

CC: What was your relationship like with award-winning author Nelson Algren?

AS: Nelson Algren was a lifelong friend of mine; he was the godfather of my first son. I wrote two books on Algren. We wandered the city for 9–10 years taking pictures. Algren had a very tough life, but he was a great writer—one of the greatest writers Chicago ever produced.

CC: What was it like teaching a photography class at Columbia?

AS: [The students] had been doing great work in emulating famous photographers, so I gave them an assignment to cover everything that was happening at Columbia that night. In the next classroom, about seven feet from the door sat a young woman who was nursing a baby and reading a book at the same time. And every one of those photographers looked at that scene and just walked by it—nobody took a picture of it. In that moment, I knew I could never be a teacher. I just couldn’t stand the aggravation of it.

CC: What inspired “My Florence?”

AS: I was always taking pictures of my Florence and  my five children. I decided to put these pictures together to portray an upbeat view of her life. I did include some pictures of her in the last stages of her life, but my wife was a joyous, very successful person, and I just wanted to show the joy I felt in being her husband.

CC: What is something we should know about the exhibit?

AS: The very first picture of her is one of the first I ever took when we were both 20, and she’s jumping in the air in a dance step against a sky background at a summer camp in New York. One of the few downbeat pictures I made is of her choosing her coffin from a brochure the Rabbi had given to the family. I was against her choosing it, but she liked to take charge and was in control. So, I show her choosing the coffin, and then the very next picture shows the coffin halfway into the grave, with people throwing roses on it.

CC: How does the story end?

AS: Near the end of the exhibit is the picture of the 15-year-old daughter of a friend of mine, who is the only non-family person in the exhibit. She inherited a lot of Florence’s clothes, including her favorite skirt and jacket. Her father called me up. He’s a good friend of mine; he collects my pictures and he is a good amateur photographer. He called me from the botanical garden to say that his daughter, India, was wearing Florence’s favorite skirt and jacket and climbing up the rocks and he just got a picture for me. I am hoping to use it. I don’t know how they’ve edited it, but that should be near the end of the story.

CC: What do you hope your audience gets from the exhibit?

AS: The same feeling they would get if they were reading a short story by [Anton] Chekhov. I want people to get a view of my life, my wife’s life and my children’s lives and I hope that people can relate it to their own lives.

CC: Do you have any advice for aspiring photojournalists?

AS: Most photographers or writers for that matter—who are just starting out, like the idea of being a photojournalist, but very few are  prepared to do all of the hard work necessary. You should be going out and shooting pictures that show your world the way it actually is.  Itis not always going to be easy job, but it is something you are going to have to do. There are lucky breaks involved in working in the field, but there are no shortcuts through the hard work of becoming a great professional photographer or writer.