The Chicagoist will be launching later but in the meantime please enjoy our archives.

From The Vault Of Art Shay: Background Checks

By Chuck Sudo in News on Jun 27, 2013 4:20PM

(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 shows how a good background can be the thing to make a timeless photograph.)

Everyone's backgrounds can use some sprucing. Just for fun I brought a couple of small Samsung cameras to a big indoor-outdoor party these old friends of mine were giving for their far-flung relatives and nearby friends. How can a photographer go wrong when the estate is swarming with kids while the energetic 96-year-old host's Texas mother bounces around like a White House hostess dispensing burgers, salad, drinks and revivified gossip? It makes you wish you brought a third camera, screwed a pancake lens onto it, focus it at 6 feet and let it rip—as only a 28mm lens can do at a party. (That is, an approximately 18 mm digital lens which works as an approximate 28. The lens that comes closest to imitating what the human eye sees when you take it to a party.)

I began to cover the ebullient granny as if Life magazine had assigned me to cover the nice old lady for an aging- gracefully story with a possible cover. Several camera fans latched onto me, one complaining, as Chuck Sudo does, why I don't do more instructional photography blogs instead of sexy personal reminiscences.
So I show you merely the first picture I made for a magazine gone forty years or so!

In the picture, the amiable Hawaiian son-in-law of my hosts is vainly trying to coax one of his little sons into smiling for my camera. But there in the background is my energetic nonagenarian, holding up the right side of my picture with a wonderful half-hug of congratulations to the pregnant wife of a famous Chicagoan. It's a perfect example of why the photographer should pay more attention to backgrounds: Sometimes they "make" the picture come alive more than the foreground.

I immediately began ransacking my mental archive for a few of my personal favorite "backgrounds"—a few of them follow. All of them have been chosen by big time picture editors for inclusion in my stories. Until my new grandma picture, I never gave much thought to the difference between amateur photographers and professionals. I think I've stumbled on a painless lesson for you photo aspirants who so often bug me to share my secrets with them.

Go thou and do likewise. There's gold in your backgrounds.

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.