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From the Vault of Art Shay: Clips

By Art Shay in News on Oct 12, 2011 7:00PM

This photo by Art Shay of Nelson Algren at the corner of Madison and Halsted in 1949. It's the cover of Shay's then new book in 2007, Chicago's Nelson Algren, Copyright Art Shay and Seven Stories Press.

A Chicago Sun-Times picture editor, Tom McNamee, devoted a full page to one of my pictures. He wrote, under a banner headline of IT'S HOW I SEE THE CITY, "Time and again I've studied every corner, like replaying a favorite song.

"The man facing the camera is Nelson Algren. He's talking to a too-happy girl he does not know, judging by the stiffness of his arms, and I wonder if he's coming or going.

"Then there's that drunk or doper sliding down the wall This is 1949 so I'm guessing drunk not doper. How many seconds more before the sidewalk becomes his bed?"

"And what about the little boy off to the left? A woman - perhaps the boy's mother - is pulling him along as he looks back at the drunk. Is she repulsed by the sliding man, or oblivious? This is Chicago, so I'm guessing oblivious."

"If I had to pick one photograph that captured how I see Chicago, how I feel the city, this would be it. On an average day, I might tell myself Chicago is a pretty postcard of the lakefront. But on an exceptional day, I know this photo is the true face of Chicago, the town that taught me to revel in a world falling apart."

"The photo was taken at Halsted and Madison streets by the superb photographer Art Shay, in the winter of '49, around the time Algren won the very first National Book Award for his (best of 1900 novels published that year!) The Man with the Golden Arm. Shay was doing a photo spread on Algren to pitch to Life Magazine."

"I first saw the picture in a book by Shay published in 1988. Now it's the cover of a new book by Shay, (the 2007) Chicago's Nelson Algren, put out by Seven Stories Press." And recently bruited by Johnny Depp's Hollywood agent, to be of sufficient interest to him, to hire Lasse Hallström as director.

"It shows Algren in his milieu," Shay told me when I asked him why he chose his shot for the cover.

"Imagine having pictures of Dostoevsky at work, or Tolstoy on his farm, or Hemingway in Italy? Algren spotted the sliding drunk, slid out of the car to help him stand up-not a chance. Only later did a problem arise." The Ivy League editors of Life wanted to know if the lady in the picture was a whore." Algren's reply: " Not necessarily, Just because a woman wants to party in the afternoon and needs three bucks don't make her a whore."

"But that wasn't good enough for the editors of Life, or for their lawyers, who sent Shay back into the streets to get a signed release from the woman as well as -from every other - as Shay put it - "bum, addict and nonwhore" in the photo. When Shay found the woman, she told him she had indeed "turned pro", but Algren never believed it. "She's just boasting," he told Shay. "If anything she's an advanced amateur. A neighborhood girl trying to climb out of the neighborhood."

If you can't wait until this time every Wednesday to get your Art Shay fix, please check out the photographer's blog, which is updated regularly. Art Shay's book, Nelson Algren's Chicago, is also available at Amazon.