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

From the Vault Of Art Shay: My Mentor

By Art Shay in News on Aug 1, 2013 4:00PM

(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 introduces us to the man who helped him start his photography career.)

One drunken night is all it sometimes takes to end a life or begin a new one. With my dear friend and mentor, Life photographer Francis Reeves Miller, it was a 1942 night in Reykjavik, Iceland weirdly lit by a midnight Arctic sky.

Both he—then a Lt. Commander in the Navy in charge of a photo group—and the Icelandic Marine who invited him outside to finish their stupid argument over a flirty blonde were drunk on wartime Russian vodka. The Marine swung and missed. My friend counterpunched, sending the Marine headlong to the curb and instant death from the cold stone. Francis "Nig" Miller—he earned the appellation years later in Palestine, Texas, when he defended a black kid against three whites who called him a bad name as they ran away.

So what did the Navy do? Not wanting to tangle with the Icelandic Marine Corps, they sobered him up Miller up the next day and transferred him south by plane and vessel all the way to Australia. There, on his first night on the town, he attended a neighborhood circus and became enthralled with Bonnie Kemp, a shapely young acrobat. The couple married and eventually had three kids. He went to work as a photog for United Press in Texas, did a great shoot on a Texas City oil refinery fire, and ended up on Life magazine, where I met him in 1947.

"You'll be working with Nig Miller in Washington," the snooty Ivy League assistant picture editor warned me in New York. I was an eager 25-year-old new staff reporter, "but we're getting rid of him. He's not Life-style and he's also very old—43." I took this as unfair and a challenge and did 40 stories with Nig, eventually lobbying him to the Chicago Bureau. It was hard to get an apartment then but with a well-placed bribe I got the Millers a four-room place in the building next to the movie house on upper Sheridan Road.

Nig helped launch my career as a photographer with unused left-over film he donated to me from Life magazine. He did some great stories, became Life's best unsung dependable, photographer (on a magazine replete with showboats) and died at 68 in 1973. Bonnie the acrobat, 15 years younger, remained beautiful and limber all her American life and motherhood and died at 64 in 1985. The last sight I had of Nig, white hair flying in the wind, was a TV moment covering the return of a crew of astronauts to the battleship whose chopper hoisted them out of the water.

Let me, as Nabokov said, pass out a few postcards.

Published with permission

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.