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From The Vault Of Art Shay: Farewell, Roger

By Art Shay in News on Apr 10, 2013 6:00PM

(Legendary Chicago-based photographer Art Shay has taken photos of kings, queens, celebrities and the common man in a 60-year career. This week, Art pays tribute to Roger Ebert in words and photographs.)

The historically shaky Wikipedia describes my family connection to the genesis of Roger Ebert's and Gene Siskel's Sneak Previews in 1975. It lists the idea for the thumbs-up/thumbs-down rating as being the brainchild of my old friend (and Studs Terkel associate), Thea Flaum.

But wait! A parallel run through Google lists the program's progenitor as my late son-in-law, Eliot Wald, the movie, TV, Second City and Saturday Night Live writer who minored in movie scripts for Richard Pryor. That said, here followeth my tribute to Roger Ebert, whose death cast more surprising rays of enduring light than the deaths of all the performer kings of the entertainment worlds. It turns out that we all read Roger, needed him, revered him, loved him. We admired his valiant struggle against cancer and were awed by his amazing increase of productivity in the face of its slow murder.

Spielberg, Oprah, Scorsese, Redford and Obama have all checked in with encomiums attesting to his wonderful presence, and most have singled out his beloved widow, Chaz, as the energizing mainspring of his last years. President Obama noted Roger's power "to take us somewhere magical. The movies won't be the same without Roger." Myriad readers pointed out that Roger's thumb guided their movie attendance or non-attendance for years. Even with movies he panned, he invariably found something worth going to see in them. He had the rare Chekhovian gift of persuasively sharing his emotional responses.

He was, among all his attributes, a gracious man. In thanking my assistant Erica DeGlopper for recently sending him the portrait I did of him in front of the Playboy movie house's marquee trumpeting Ebert's four star evaluation of Johnny Got his Gun, he wrote, "few photographers were taking my picture in 1970, Thanks." He used one of the pictures in this take for his latest book.

Long before he fell in love with the movies, Roger Ebert liked still pictures too. He grew up loving Life magazine and the exhibitions of the great photographers of his time. He liked my work, especially the street pictures with instant emotion in them; He was big on the emotion conveyed by pictures. He blurbed in one of my books: "Art Shay's photography shakes you up, sets you down gently, pats you on the head and then kicks you in the ass." For another he wrote, "Art Shay is an American original and his photographs show an eye and an imagination that can look around corners." As he did in so many multi-cornered movies.

In a walk through my exhibition at the Chicago Cultural Center nearly 20 years ago, he said, "Emotion, Art. Over and over again you show the key to great pictures." He liked my telephoto candid of Tony Accardo striding past the Big Lion at the Art Institute — title: "Big Tuna passes Big Lion on Michigan Avenue" — and especially a scene through my car window over Algren's sunken down shoulder."Sunday Morning on Madison Street" in which all kinds of Chicagoans, including a legless man, were locked into the momentary emotion of a picture.

He was right. Accardo's family bought six of Tony's pictures and David Mamet bought the Madison Street image to hang over his desk.

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.