Chicagoist Presents: From the Vault of Art Shay

By Chuck Sudo in Arts & Entertainment on Dec 22, 2010 5:00PM

[Ed. Note: Today, we're honored here at Chicagoist to introduce what we hope will be the beginning of a fruitful relationship with the legendary photographer, Art Shay.

Mr. Shay and his dedicated assistant and archivist, Erica DeGlopper, contacted us about running a regular series of photographs from his archives. Specifically, Mr. Shay wanted to focus on the more whimsical photos in his collection, while also providing some backstory behind the photos.

Some of these may be familiar to fans of his work. As you'll quickly find out, Mr. Shay is also a more than capable writer, as well as a stellar photographer.

We also ask, if you have a chance, to catch Mr. Shay's current gallery exhibition, "That Was Then" at Thomas Masters Gallery (245 W. North Ave., 312-440-2322). It runs through tomorrow. Now, let's turn the floor over to Mr. Art Shay. — CJS]

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Art Shay on "Decisions! Decisions!"

"The mind of a photographer — let immodest me make it a personal boast : a photographer who's published 30,000 pictures and more than 1000 covers on national magazines and more than 50 of my own books — is constantly, instantly, making aesthetic decisions. The same kind you make every time you look through your digital finder. 'Do I shoot now, NOW? Nnnnow? No... Now! Got it!'
"Maybe.

"Then comes the just as tough decision-making of editing (you see where I'm going).
To keep it in perspective all I have to do, as a sometimes shooter for Sports Illustrated, is remember Mickey Mantle in the locker room after going a mere 4 for 5. 'Sunovabitch!' he berated his sweaty nude self in the mirror, 'you knew after ten feet it started out fastball, so why the fuck did you swing like it was a fuckin' curve?' He broke the bat (swinging right) on the bench to emphasize his point to the deaf gods of baseball. To all pros all such gods are deaf. It's just you baby, your addled head, your inadequate body.

"I have made such instant bad decisions that have cost me full pages, spreads and covers - and the four figure bonuses that come with some of them.

"We have an ongoing Shay family joke. We're blessed with four pro photographers and many young children. At family gatherings when multiple cameras come out, one usually quiet voice often rings out — that of my wife, Florence, the quiet rare book dealer. 'Now! Now! Now!,' she shouts at one or another of us sighting one of the kids or several interacting. This breaks us up, because Florence doesn't even know how to use an idiot camera and never has. 'But I've looked at thousands of pictures,' she defends, 'and I know what makes a good picture!' Yeah, sure.

"Once, riding as a decoy in a car in which a great Life crime writer and I (a famous Mafia stalker) were trailing a crooked prison official taking a Mafia capo on a for-pay weekend pass from Lompoc Prison, a country club facility for rich felons in California, Florence. in her excitement, began shouting directions: 'Not the little road- take the highway. Can't you see they're going north.' Etc.

"Photography, among other things, is developing strong instant opinions and acting on them. But you gotta do it with a camera, not your mouth.

"So, in answer to Mr. Sudo's question about why I chose some of the pictures you see, all I can do is tell you what I remember of how they came about. Does my black Santa regaling a young Asian betray some of my feelings about Christmas? Or whether an illiterate dog is breaking a law he can't read? That's your decision."