From The Vault Of Art Shay: On 'Finding Vivian Maier' And Street Photographers

By Art Shay in News on May 13, 2014 4:10PM

(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 weighs in on the posthumous success of Vivian Maier.)

As the acknowledged surviving dean of Chicago photographers, I am asked, almost daily, if I ever knew Vivian Maier, ever slept with her, what do I think of her work and what do I think of the movie.

In reverse order I think Finding Vivian Maier is very good, if a little too street-corner psychological. Rich Cahan, the brilliant creator of many books on photography, including a compendious book of Maier 's photographs; Charlie Siskel, the documentary film's co-director; and John Maloof, who stumbled on and quixotically bought most of her abandoned negatives at a junk and antique auction house for just under 400 bucks—all, are to be commended for their (as it turned out) profitable labors and enthusiasm. Happily, I never slept with her. She hated men and was violent and even though it never came up, I'd be frightened of her heavy Rolleiflex dropping on my small Leica.

The movie is a hit in Chicago, people in galleries across the world are buying prints, and Maloof (making a face) as he grumps in the movie, is still trying to get a foothold for her work in the art world. He disparages that world for their as-usual blindness, but the Wall Street Journal has given him hope-digital printing and camera work, they aver, will obviate the desire of serious collectors to collect vintage prints done by the makers of the pictures--who are not necessarily good darkroom technicians. A foothold that has so far eluded the pushy team. The advances in digital printing, the WSJ avers, will somewhat level the playing field for unknowns who never used an enlarger or saw a print develop in a tray of Dektol.

The two biggest photo galleries in Chicago, both turned down Maloof's original pitch.

As a photographer, four years older than poor deceased Vivian (who had no published pictures), I'm 30,000 published pictures ahead of her. I mean every few years a dead photographer pops up to compete with me. So being a competitive person, I'm just now working with a seasoned documentary crew, aiming at Sundance, on a film about my own verrk and colorful career. They've photographed me at 3 openings so far, and dragged me back to my boyhood home in the Bronx, where my kid brothers pointed out to the camera the exact place I was batting in the 40s when I hit the very first tennis ball used in stickball, 300 feet away and five stories high, onto the roof of James Monroe High School. I can only utter modestly discreet platitudes about Vivian's admirable success, and deny that I'm jealous of a successful if weird competitor who took nice saleable snapshots.

Meanwhile, you're all welcome to come to this living photographer's opening show of industrial pictures, mostly from my Fortune magazine work, at the beautiful new Grohmann Museum at the Milwaukee School of Engineering, 1000 N. Broadway, Milwaukee. I'll be interviewed live at 7 p.m. At the opening, admission and parking are free. It will be up through August 17. 414-277-2300.

Don't miss "My Florence" which closes May 24, at the Columbia College Library sponsored by the Museum of Contemporary Photography - Chicago. I'm also proud to announce that I will be (finally) exhibiting my work at the Art Institute Of Chicago sometime in 2015.

If you can't get enough of Art Shay's words and photos, please check out the photographer's blog, which is updated regularly. Art Shay's book, Chicago's Nelson Algren, is also available at Amazon.