~ An AmeriCollector.com Exclusive ~
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A buff and smiling yet self-conscious-looking Marlon Brando, age 26, relaxes on his Libertyville, Ill., farm in the company of his spaniel, that steadiest of companions, sporting its own canine grin … A sea of mourners courses through the streets of Memphis to see off the plane carrying Martin Luther King Jr.’s body to Atlanta; the parallel to Moses dying en route to the Promised Land – King’s own prescient analogy – is striking … A welding crew on a GATX railcar assembly line, blowtorches alight, works as feverishly as a cavern full of dwarfish metalsmiths in a Tolkien fantasy … Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan holds a tambourine halo-like above his shaved head as girlfriend and fellow musician Jessica Origliasso smiles up at him beatifically like a Giotto Apostle.
There’s nothing bland, trite or contrived about the photography of Art Shay, who we had the pleasure of profiling on AmeriCollector last summer (“Focus on Art Shay,” Aug. 24, 2010): If you want fluff, check out the dog and cat calendars at your local Barnes & Noble. Art Shay is all about the real, the unprepped and the unexpected: the crazy angle, the partially obscured figure, the dropped pretense, the suddenly revealed view so ironic as to be, pardon the cliché, iconic.
Thirty-two of Art’s images, both black-and-white and color, are currently on display in an exhibit titled “That Was Then” at Chicago’s Thomas Masters Gallery through Thurs., Dec. 23.
[singlepic id=350 w=320 h=240 float=left]John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy, Nelson Algren and Saul Bellow, James Baldwin, Hugh Hefner and Oprah Winfrey are among the show’s subjects.
“In my opinion, Art is a genius artist,” his archivist, Erica DeGlopper, told me. “His power to observe and brilliantly communicate makes him a master storyteller. He is brave, hilarious, serious and direct in his approach …
“He doesn’t come with an approach to find a prefigured story: He finds the story,” Erica added.
Art has taken thousands of photos on assignment for Life, Time, Fortune, Sports Illustrated, the New York Times and other publications. His work is in the collections of the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC, Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, the Art Institute of Chicago and many other institutions, public and private. He’s also the author of more than 50 books, many for children.
The Thomas Masters Gallery is located at 245 W. North Ave., Chicago; for more information, visit www.thomasmastersgallery.com or call (312) 440-2322.
Signed copies of Shay’s most recent books (“Album for an Age,” “Couples,” “Animals,” “Art Shay: Chicago Accent” and “Chicago’s Nelson Algren”) are available from Titles, Inc., in Highland Park, Ill.; call (847) 432-3690.
I asked Art some questions about photography and, as always, got a kick out of his replies:
AmeriCollector: Which of your photos are your favorites?
Art: I have several favorites. One is of an Ashland Ave. (Chicago) all-night beauty salon in a low-rent area. Looking through the window, you see a forest of bubble- headed mannequins. Just beyond them, under one of those old spaceship-helmet-type hair dryers, sits a 65-year-old lady. To me, the bubble-headed mannequins are what we want to look like; the aging lady is what we really look like.
[singlepic id=353 w=320 h=240 float=left]In another, we’re looking at a window in which two bridal dummies are modeling their gowns. Passing them is a pregnant Hispanic woman about four or five months pregnant. While I was shooting this in kind of an alley, some glaziers set down a big glass window behind me. Reflected in the glass is an old lady – a crone, really – enjoying the sunshine. My title is “The Three, Possibly Four Ages of Woman.” Marcel Marceau had a copy of it in his Paris home. He said it reminded him of his tableaux, called “Youth, Maturity and Old Age.”
I especially like it because one of the world’s great collectors, Henry Rasmussen (then the editor-publisher of the prestigious Black and White Magazine, or B&W) bought it from me! (He gave me more pages – 14 – than any photographer had received in B&W until that time, about four years ago.)
A picture I made of Hugh Hefner sitting at his bedroom desk, surrounded by five languorously sprawling Bunnies – is one of my favorites. It is also one of the favorites of the National Portrait Gallery, which bought it to hang in Washington. My daughter Jane, on a speaker’s visit to DC, stumbled on the picture with some of her colleagues and was able to boast, “One of my dad’s …” She now has her own copy in her collection of my works hanging in her palatial LA home.
AC: Who was your most enjoyable subject?
Art: Liz Taylor was great: cooperative and into the event I was covering for Life – Smell-O-Vision, promulgated by her late husband (film producer Mike Todd). Life didn’t use the story, holding its nose despite Liz’s beauty and cooperation.
AC: Do you usually use one camera or more than one? Do you still use a Leica?
[singlepic id=351 w=320 h=240 float=left]Art: I still have my Leicas and a little-known improvement on the Leica – a Konica Hexar that uses Leica lenses but also shoots four frames a second and is fairly silent. Incidentally, a rep of the Leica company has offered to lend me the $8,000 new Leica M9 to use on a project I’m doing with rocker Billy Corgan. I’ve been using high-end small digitals now including a Canon G11 and the newer Samsung EX1, which has a fast F1.8 lens. I also use a Nikon F90.
AC: Who are your own favorite photographers and why?
Art: I like the work of Cartier-Bresson for its eclectic view of the world, albeit without the great humor I find in wandering. I loved my old friend Alfred Eisenstaedt’s work – and he loved mine … He knew I had done more than 50 hidden-camera crime and Mafia stories for Time, Life, Fortune and Sports Illustrated, and said, “I can’t imagine going out to shoot a portrait without an appointment … and the camera under your jacket.”
I also liked the imaginative work of Life’s Philippe Halsman, with whom I worked on a book for Ford in 1953. Halsman, former Life editor Joe Thorndike and I were having Chinese one day in Dearborn, Mich. The subject of how Life would cover the Second Coming came up. (I was 30 at the time, Philippe in his 50s.) Joe said shrewdly, “Who would you send, Philippe?” Unhesitating, Halsman said, “Why, me, of course. I would get a portrait of Jesus that would last for the ages.” Joe shook his head. “I’d send young Art,” he said. “While you were setting up your tripod, Shay would get 36 pictures and a release.”
AC: What are your favorite photos by other photographers?
Art: I like Halsman’s picture of Dalí with cats flying through the air. I like Leonard McCombe’s Life shot for his cowboy essay: desolate prairie, only shade coming from a telephone pole, and a slim cowboy using this shade to get out of sun …
My photographer-writer son made a fantastic picture of an old lady sitting at a house sale, trying to sell an old blue phonograph. Her face and dress set off the instrument perfectly.
AC: What do you think of the manipulation of colors, shadows, for example, using Photoshop – that some photographers seem to do routinely AFTER they take a photo?
Art: Photoshop is great as a retouching tool. It has yet to prove itself as an artistic medium. I think it will …
AC: Do you prefer your own and others’ black-and-white work?
Art: Most of my collectors don’t realize I’ve shot almost as much color as black-and-white. My primary gallery thinks I’m so well-known as a black-and-white photographer, hanging color would confuse buyers. As it happens, earlier this year I had a successful color exhibition – my first at the Thomas Masters Gallery in Chicago. The first three pictures sold were to my black-and-white collectors!
I’ll also weigh in on the photo-paper-versus-digital-paper controversy: Some digital prints do more justice to black-and-white or color negatives than traditional wet printing. Digital printing keeps the price down, and digitals last 200 years.
AC: If someone wanted to collect photographic prints, what advice would you give?
Art: My advice to collectors: Buy the prints that you enjoy looking at more than cursorily on a quick round of a gallery. I love one collector who blames me for sending her back four times to see what I had in mind in a single picture …
To me the picture’s the thing. I feel new collectors should just buy pictures they like.
Photos copyright Art Shay. Used with the photographer’s permission.