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From The Vault Of Art Shay: Coming To L.A.

By Art Shay in News on Sep 19, 2012 6:00PM

(Legendary Chicago-based photographer Art Shay has taken photos of kings, queens, celebrities and the common man in a 60-year career. In this week's look at his photography archives, Art shares some memories of his time on the West coast as he prepares for an exhibit in Los Angeles.)

My thoughts these days are mostly about getting 80 of my pictures on the walls of the DRKRM Gallery in downtown Los Angeles for a month-long exhibition opening Jan. 5, 2013. My hard-working assistant Erica 's facile mind is similarly occupied.

It was Erica, dedicated to making me ever more famous before I die and afterwards, who got me into this. All she had to do was show me news of the success of pictures from their photo-journalistic exhibitions of pictures of Marilyn Monroe, Ansel Adams and news that the Gallery makes prints from negatives by contemporary master Gary Winogrand. I'm hoping that some of my West coast collectors like David Mamet, William Friedkin and one of my favorite blurbists, Hugh Hefner, show up. Collectors of my Mickey Cohen and Johnny Stompanato pictures will enjoy my first-time showings of these toughs.

She's been gathering prints, flattering magazine layouts, and other seductive materials to send to the young and eager DRKRM Gallery staff. So when did Los Angeles first swim into my ken? I remember! It was 1948 and I was the soon to be deposed Life San Francisco Bureau Chief, kicked out of town because I had tried to get my photographer to shoot a picture of Gov. Earl Warren, then a candidate for Vice President under Thomas Dewey. How come? Oh, I had noticed that all seven newspaper and wire service fotogs were taking phony pictures of Warren making believe he was voting—stuffing a blank ballot into a little money box. All papers involved and the wire services would run this picture, I knew, as authentic records of what happened that Election Day morning 1948 in an Oakland garage serving as a voting center. I was also in the doghouse for reporting that along the Embarcadero, the stevedores were 10-3 for Truman.

So my simple action—one that changed my life forever—was to try to get a picture of the man my own magazine predicted would be, in that weary cliché, "a heartbeat away from the Presidency," actually helping his own cause. I didn't foresee the irate candidate come charging at lensman Johnny Dominis and me, screaming, "You are violating the First Amendment to the Constitution- the secrecy of the ballot!" We gave him the exposed film but he kept waving it at the press—most of whom had left early with their phony pictures intact."

From Life's point of view I, at 26, had proven too immature to be its youngest Bureau Chief. “Just right for heading up the L.A. bureau,” one of my editor friends leaked to me. But it was not to be. Elmer Lower, a distinguished, more mature journalist, was moving in from Georgia and I ended up as second in command in Chicago.

But that was then...

In Chicago, my pal Nelson Algren had just won the very first National Book Award for his novel The Man with the Golden Arm. It had prevailed against 1,600 other novels and Eleanor Roosevelt made the presentation at the Waldorf in NY. It was my first official Life assignment as a photographer!

Segue forward a year or so and movie producer Otto Preminger was about to make the movie, having signed up Frank Sinatra for the lead. (Sinatra would get an Oscar nomination for playing the hero, Frankie Machine.) Sinatra, Jimmy Dean and Jimmy Cagney were beaten out by Ernest Borgnine for Marty: a masterpiece performance. Otto was also trying to get Algren to help with the script for Hollywood pin money.

I’ve included in this week’s gallery two of Nelson's letters to me at the time (I had advised him to shun Preminger like the Plague after Nelson wrote he had installed him in the Garden of Allah motel, where Scott Fitzgerald met his Hollywood downfall. Preminger sent over the standard blondes, booze and bullshit of the era.).

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, Chicago's Nelson Algren, is also available at Amazon.