Sunday, September 16, 2007

Photography Books by Art Shay

Last week Bonnie and I saw an extensive exhibit of the photographs of Chicago photojournalist Art Shay at the Chicago Historical Museum. The exhibit, which takes up a large section of the second floor, includes works from Shay's days with Life magazine in the late 1940s to a few recent photographs. Most of the work was from the 1950s and 1960s and almost all of it was black and white.

We looked at a small book that the museum had to go along with the exhibit, but it was very disappointing. It had only a sampling of the many photos. The museum shop also had a reduced size version of Nelson Algren's Chicago by Shay. I knew that there had to be better volumes than these.

I picked three to reserve from various libraries in my library's consortium, which together do show many, though still not all, of the photos.

The first is the original edition of Nelson Algren's Chicago. The first part of the exhibit featured the many photos of Algren and his haunts that Shay took while on an assignment for Life magazine in the early 1950s. While some of the photos are humorous, some are sad, especially the scenes of drug addicts and alcoholics. Life never ran the photo story because some of these images were considered beyond the mainstream acceptability. It was the 1950s.

Spread across pages 2 and 3 is a great photo shot on a Sunday morning on Madison Street, also called Skid Row. It is framed by a car window and shows a variety of street characters going about their business. The mood reminds me of A Sunday on La Grand Jatte by Georges Seurat.

I was struck by the burning of the street garbage on Maxwell Street, shown on page 43. It looks like 1900, not 1950. Can there have really been such places in 1950?

The idea behind the collection of photos in Couples by Art Shay is that there are visual pairs in every image. From the striking cover a reader might image that meant romantic couples, but that is not the case. It could be a pair of pigs or water towers, but most are people.

The cover image is also on page 6. It makes me think of a scene in the movie Bull Durham. Shay took the picture as part of a publicity campaign for a play.

This book includes a lot of non-Algren photos. Most were not in the exhibit, but I like them anyway. On page 35 are two rather frightened looking National Guardsmen in Chicago for the 1968 Democratic National Convention. On page 107 is a photo of boy who has drawn himself into his coat so he appears to he headless and armless. On page 85 telephone linemen are up on telephone poles playing catch with a ball.

The museum exhibit featured a display of Shay's photos taken with secret cameras hidden in books, briefcases, handbags, and newspapers. He was able to get photos in court rooms, jails, and other places that cameras were forbidden. I am sure he used a hidden camera to take the photo on page 89 of the autopsies of two nurses killed by Richard Speck.

Album for an Age is a book to read after seeing the larger sized photography books. The reproductions are smaller and not glossy, which is a bit disappointing. Shay, however, tells stories of what the pictures depict and how he took them. A real fan of photography will find the book essential, as will people who are interested in the history of Chicago and its people.

This book also includes some celebrity photos, like the ones in the later part of the exhibit at the museum. Judy Garland, Marlon Brando, and Ernest Hemingway are included, as is a group shot of Frank Sinatra and his Rat Pack.

If you are in the Chicago area, I recommend the exhibit to you. If not, check out some of Art Shay's books.

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