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Photos: Art Shay Documents Chicago's Civic Agitation In 'Troublemakers'

By Carrie McGath in Arts & Entertainment on Nov 11, 2015 5:53PM

Art Shay gleefully recounted anecdotes when we spoke to him about his career and his current exhibition, Troublemakers, at Roosevelt University's Gage Gallery.

Shay is legendary in his uncanny ability to be smack in the middle of historic moments, surreal compositions and intense subjects. He became a force in photojournalism thanks to his ingenuity, keen eye, deep empathy and stealth. He told us, "My career has been a parenthesis of crime, sports, news events and celebrities."

Shay also spoke about his mentor, Francis Miller, someone he refers to as a "great unsung photographer" who bore a resemblance to W.C. Fields. Miller taught him a lot of the skills that has made him one of the most important photographers of the century. "He taught me how to hide a camera in a shoebox or how to hide it on your body."

This led him to become a specialist in capturing threatening figures and dangerous moments in history. With over 80 Mafia stories in his career, he said such stories "required hidden cameras, long lenses and bullshit." Documenting the Mafia throughout the country had its imminent risks, and these were never assignments he took lightly.

We spoke to Troublemakers curator Professor Erik Gellman about the exhibit's origins and how the work is showcased. "The show came about after seeing a small selection of civil rights photos by Art Shay, organized for an exhibit in Florida. This led to a lunch where the Gage Gallery curator, Mike Ensdorf, and I asked about how many other photographs existed on similar themes." After that lunch, Shay's Assistant, Erica DeGlopper, set out to make this show happen within a civil rights theme, granting the curators full access to the photographer's archive in Deerfield, Illinois.

Image Credit: Art Shay
Beyond the sheer number of photographs and their potency, the display of them in the gallery is enthralling; over 300 photos hang salon-style in the gallery, with some near a viewer's ankle and some over a viewer's head.

"We arranged the photos in a strip accompanied by many photographs above and below it, suggesting that parts of this history could not be contained by the strip itself," Gellman said.

This 12-inch high strip cascades all around the space, acting as a kind of timeline to Chicago's complex shifts through modern history including: the Second Great Migration, “white flight,” neighborhood and street activism, cultural and racial politics, and the city's political machine. Along with these kinetic documents of the fierce struggles so much a part of the frame of Chicago, are poignant photos of everyday Chicagoans. This dichotomy further illustrates how the times were squarely affecting citizens, for better or worse.

Shay said one photo in particular was his favorite because of how it spoke to the climate in which it was captured.

"There is a picture of a woman with a 10-inch scar on her throat. It was a new scar, still bloody. She said she had been on her honeymoon and her mate cut her," he said. He captured this moment while she was sitting in a hospital waiting to get stitches. "That red scar makes a pattern of horror that's hard to duplicate and it's just so human, a foible of humanity of what we do to each other."

The photo, titled She had to wait 30 minutes for a doctor, was taken c. 1949 at the Cook County Hospital. Among the photos of unrest, protests and white supremacists, this woman is an extension of the horrors of the world, a message conveyed with Shay's trademark immediacy that skirts the beauty and repulsion humanity is forever capable of doling out.

Engrossing and poignant, the works in this show combine to exemplify the anxiety that permeated the streets of Chicago during times of uprising. As Shay told us, "the agitation in Chicago is considerable" and this is an exhibition that muses on that considerable, agitated conflict and how to find, within it, some resolution and even some splendor.

Troublemakers is on view through Dec. 19, Gage Gallery, 18 S. Michigan Ave.