Art Shay is a legend. And at 92, he’s still going strong. Originally from the Bronx, Shay moved to the Chicago area in 1949, a few years after World War II, during which he served and flew 52 bomber missions. A prolific writer and photographer, Shay worked on the staff of “Life” magazine as a reporter until venturing out on his own as a freelance photographer in the early 1950s. He ended up becoming one of the country’s best photographers — taking pictures of seven U.S. Presidents, several world leaders, countless celebrities, sports figures and the common man. He has more than 1,000 magazine covers to his credit, 62 books, two plays and even a blog.
Currently some of his pictures of his good friend Nelson Algren are on display at Firecat Projects, an art gallery located in the same Wicker Park neighborhood where many of the photos were shot. The exhibit, entitled “Art Shay: Nelson Algren’s Eternal Chicago,” runs through December 20 and is highly recommended by The Chicago Ambassador.
The day after the busy opening night of the exhibit The Chicago Ambassador chatted with Shay about Nelson Algren, Shay’s extraordinary career, Billy Corgan, and his experience of sleeping with Elizabeth Taylor.
Interviewed by Bob Chiarito for The Chicago Ambassador.
CA)You met Nelson in 1949 when you were a reporter for “Life” magazine. You followed Algren around with a camera, gathering pictures for a photo-essay piece he was pitching to the magazine. “Life” didn’t pick up the article however.
SHAY) Yes, that’s correct. They decided that it was too downbeat. Instead, they ran a photo essay of a Mexican jail. It was very heart-breaking, especially since he had a pretty good year, he was about to win The National Book Award. (Algren won the first National Book Award in 1950 for “The Man with the Golden Arm.”)
CA) That experience is when you and Nelson became good friends? How close did you become?
SHAY) Yes… He was a good friend, he was the godfather of my oldest son. He was a friend of the family.
CA) You took so many pictures of him over the years, was it his idea for you to photograph him or your idea?
SHAY) He was a good story. I was a magazine photographer. I left the staff (of “Life”) in ’51 and I went out on my own to be a writer and a photographer so pretty soon I was shooting for “Time,” “Life,” “Fortune,” …”Sports Illustrated” came along in 1954… I did close to 1,500 covers of different magazines and books.
CA) But the pictures of Nelson, the fact that you photographed him over so many years — was that his idea or yours?
SHAY) It was just a thing we did. I was living in Des Plaines at the time and then Deerfield and I always had business in the city. He led an interesting, colorful life and he got to meet most of the big people in Chicago and I did too one way or the other. For example, I shot Marcel Marceau for “Life” magazine and we became friends so every time Marcel came to Chicago, we took him out. He would just wander around and observe people and I was trying to get that on film.
CA) Do you think Nelson ever imagined one day your pictures of him would be exhibited?
SHAY) Well, I really don’t imagine that his mind worked that way. He knew the magazine trade. I had gotten him to doing the “City on the Make” article for “Holiday” magazine. Ken McCormick was the editor of Doubleday and one day he and Algren’s mother Goldie and I — I had a new 1949 Pontiac, which after “Life” magazine’s discount, was $2,100. It had automatic everything, but no air conditioning. Anyway, We were driving out to Algren’s place and Ken McCormick was talking and said we really need a title to convince him and said ‘Chicago is such an up town, it’s really a city on the make. I said ‘that’s your title.’ So it was born in my ’49 Pontiac.
CA) Your pictures of Nelson were a big part of Michael Caplan’s documentary “Algren” that recently premiered. In our recent interview with Michael, he said that he met you through a mutual friend and that you suggested making a film on Nelson to him — is that how that project was born?
SHAY) Yes. We were at Steppenwolf, Martha Lavey was the creative director, she did a whole night of people reading from Nelson’s work and talking about Nelson. Mostly it was writers, Don DeLillo, also people like the movie director Billy Friedkin. It was Martha Lavey’s idea to have some of my pictures projected while they spoke. So, Caplan attended and that’s what gave him the idea of using pictures. I ended up lending him 205 pictures.
CA) Was the film the reason for the timing of the current exhibit at Firecat?
SHAY) Not at all. Tony Fitzpatrick (co-owner of the Firecat Projects gallery) and I are old friends and he has always been a big Algren fan. My late wife Florence, who was a prominent rare book dealer who died two years ago — the three of us would have lunch every couple of weeks or so. As a matter of fact, I’ve written two plays that were produced here. Mike Nussbaum directed my last play, which was called “Where have you gone, Jimmy Stewart?” I flew in Jimmy Stewart’s squadron. He was my WW II squadron commander. He used to brief our crew and was our commanding officer. Some actor played my part in the play. I’m writing another play and Tony and I were discussing the possibility of him playing me as a retired “Life” magazine photographer.
CA) Where does that project stand now?
SHAY) I have it about half done. The next move is to show it to Tony and to see if he likes it.
CA) It was pretty neat that the exhibit was in the same Wicker Park neighborhood that you and Nelson hung around in so many years before.
SHAY) That was the main reason that I gravitated towards it. About two years ago, Johnny Depp’s agent called me. He wanted to make the movie with his then girlfriend about the relationship between Nelson and Simone de Beauvoir, the great love story. He thought he could come here and shoot but I told him it’s all been transmogrified into an upper-class neighborhood now, it was completely different. He went and made a pirate movie instead.
CA) You don’t think Nelson would recognize the neighborhood?
SHAY) I don’t think so at all…
CA) You had 41 pictures of Nelson in the exhibit. How did you narrow it down from the hundreds or even thousands of pictures that you took of him over the years?
SHAY) There were several thousand, and my editor Erica DeGlopper — she’s a great editor, she picked them.
CA) Your pictures seem to be in demand —
SHAY) My pictures sell regularly. There are a lot of collectors. Ann Nathan’s gallery — Ann and I go back aways. I did a story for “Life” Magazine on Ann in 1959. I showed her going back to work as a working mother. We kept in touch and I became the first photographer she ever had at her gallery. We had an exhibit with a wonderful opening night with about 500 people and we sold more than 50 pictures the first month and she’s kept a 12-foot room in her gallery with my pictures and she sells about one or two a week. I can’t believe it. It’s very gratifying.
CA) Do you still always carry a camera around with you?
SHAY) Yes, I always keep it with me.
CA) I read that you’re working on a project on the life of your friend Billy Corgan — how’s that coming along? How did you two become friends?
SHAY) Yes, I’ve been documenting Billy Corgan. He was a good friend to my wife. She was his resident, substitute Jewish mother. He would come to her rare book store and read poetry. She would guide him on poetry books. He also has a pretty good collection of my pictures. We became pretty good friends. He’d come over for lox and bagels on Sunday morning sometimes and he would startle my younger neighbors who wondered what the hell Billy Corgan was doing in the neighborhood.
CA) Is there any deadline for the Corgan project?
SHAY) It started out as a 3-year project, shooting him while he was composing two separate albums that were in the works at the time. He has so many projects. My son Richard, who is also a photographer, also became friends with Corgan and followed him to Russia a few months ago. Billy is working on his own autobiography. He’ll be able to to use the pictures.
CA) Will you do anything else with your pictures of him?
SHAY) No, I have no plans to. You know, showbiz is a completely different animal. There are copyrights, there are lawyers, all kinds of things.
CA) There is a documentary on your life being made?
SHAY) Yes, by an outfit called Purple Onion Films out of Milwaukee. Already hours and hours of shooting have taken place. They even followed me to the home where I grew up in the Bronx. I had a show in New York and we got in a limo and went to the Bronx where my beginnings were. We tried to get into the basement where my first darkroom was, but the people were away.
CA) Was the neighborhood a lot different?
SHAY) Not really, it looked the same. It was a good Jewish and Italian neighborhood. Rent used to be $33.
CA) You’ve done so many books, articles and also the plays. Along with your photography. What do you consider yourself? Are you a photographer first?
SHAY) I’m just a journalist. I’ve done 61 books. I love to take pictures and until recently, I also had a blog with the Chicagoist.
CA) You’re no longer writing the blog?
SHAY) I’m not writing it right now because I’m just too busy. I’ll tell you, the one that got the biggest response was one I wrote about the perks of being a “Life” photographer. ‘You get to meet presidents, you get to sleep with Elizabeth Taylor.’ When I would say that at a lecture at a synagogue or church, my wife would make a face. People would ask questions and I’d have to explain. In 1960, she was in town at the Ambassador East to promote her late husband Mike Todd’s “Smell-O-Vision.” I did a story on her, and then three weeks later I was in L.A. at the airport coming back to Chicago. All of a sudden, the plane was taxiing and came to a stop and she gets in through the rear door. I was seated in the last row and there was only one seat left which was next to me. She said ‘Hey Art, I had a real rough party last night, I just came home and if you don’t mind, let’s not talk. Let’s just sleep.’ So we slept all the way to Chicago. That’s how I got to sleep with Elizabeth Taylor. …That story got 80,000 hits and was syndicated in 14 U.S. cities, and in London, Toronto and Shanghai.
CA) What keeps you going?
SHAY) I just fell in love with the camera early on, and journalism, the high school newspaper… I’ve always been a writer.
To follow Art Shay and to see his schedule of different exhibits in 2015, click here.
Also, here are a couple outtakes from our interview with Art Shay that we wanted to share.
SHAY) The recent documentary about Roger Ebert entitled “Life Itself” just made the short-list for the Oscar. The filmmakers bought seven or eight pictures of mine of Roger for the movie so I’m rooting for it. You know, Roger wrote my favorite review of my pictures. He wrote, ‘Art Shay’s photography shakes you up, sets you down gently, pats you on the head and then kicks you in the ass.’
SHAY) SANDRO (Sandro Miller) has a picture of John Malkovich spoofing my famous shot of Simone de Beauvoir getting dressed in a bathroom. Of course, her ass was much better than his. (Sandro Miller’s Malkovich, Malkovich, Malkovich – Homage to photographic masters series is currently on exhibit at the Catherine Edelman Gallery in Chicago).
SHAY on Algren’s opinion of the movie version of “The Man with the Golden Arm” ) — Nelson never liked the Sinatra movie, he wouldn’t even pose in front of the marquee. We were on Lawrence Avenue and I tried to get him to pose in front of it and he said ‘I had nothing to do with that picture.’ He didn’t like Kim Novak as the heroine. He didn’t like that they clothed her in Hollywood clothes, not Milwaukee Avenue clothes and he said ‘Sinatra kicked heroin the way you would kick a summer cold.’