Wednesday, January 13, 2010


Thomas Masters Gallery
January 15 – February 15, 2010
jeffery mcnary- NEOTERICART

Art Shay’s photography is brilliant. And should one be in search of art as solely objects of, and for, aesthetic enjoyment, the exhibition, “Art Shay’s True Colors”, opening Friday, January 15 at the Thomas Masters Gallery, is not that experience. It is not an imagined dream life. It is a collection, an exhibition of the works of a photographer who has managed to crystallize defining moments in the American experience in bright colors, without a bypass, on archive rag paper with digital print.

For the artist, simply telling a story is too easy. Shay’s photos appear to tell a story behind a story. There is a pattern of capturing his subject sans posing. There are athletes, and movie stars. There is Khrushchev in Iowa, and Johnny Cash, Daleys and Jordan. There is Warhol and Jack Nicholas, Vince Lombardi and Bart Star and other luminaries out of their usual. There are protestors and police faced-off tango style in Grant Park in ‘68…the viewer can practically whiff the tear gas and refer and hear the chants. There’s the Nixon, amped up with arms in that ‘v’ before the looming, “Goddess of Grain” in the background.

Some entrances and exits flow in this exhibition. In 1964, two years prior to returning to participate in an open housing campaign, Martin Luther King, Jr. visited Chicago and spoke at a rally for racial justice at Soldier Field. Shay was there, and captured a youthful civil rights leader being greeted by both police and the assembled masses, “King at Soldier Field”. Moving deeper into the exhibition there are more King photographs, King smiling, King speaking, King dead…in an open casket with his followers appearing stunned and in tears. Shay captured the riots following the assassination and the drama of the police search for the killer in Memphis with a dramatic and searing intensity.

“Photography has been my love since I was 12 and my Dad lent me his folding Kodak. I immediately began to shoot but also develop other peoples' rolls of Verichrome in the coal bin that made up part of the modest Bronx four family home we lived in,” says Shay. “I built my first enlarger out of a Maxwell House coffee can that slid up and down on the sandwiched 2 x4's I found in a junk heap. The sliding wood pieces came from the bottom of a long abandoned dining room table.”

The exhibition brings the viewer shots of Nelson Algren, (a friend of Shay and god father to one of his children) on the gritty side streets and back alleys of Chicago. Shay had followed Algren with a camera, shooting photos for a piece he was pitching to Life. It’s been written that they were, “masters chronicling the same patch of ground with different tools.”

Back to his early days, Shay continued in his ribald fashion, “When I was 16 an ancient divorcee of 35, professing interest in my work, professed wanting to learn enlarging, and in the process enlarged me sufficiently in 5 seconds to capture my virginity. This influenced me greatly as to the value of photography.”

Sharing more of his history, “I took a Leica into WWII and used it during combat flying of 52 missions. Just after the war, when I was thinking of becoming a professional writer… I was an English major in my only nine months of college before enlisting at age 20 in 1942…and the Washington Post took to printing Sunday features I wrote.”

Shay was soon hired as a staff reporter for Life Magazine. “It was my job at one time or another to schlep camera equipment around for perhaps 20 of Life's fotogs. Life reporters were verboten from using a camera under pain of firing, but in my three years as a staffer I must have had 20 pages in print under other (real) photographers' bylines- while carrying their spare cameras” It was at this point Shay opted to leave Life, going freelance, shooting mostly his own ideas and crafting his own stories, as well as shooting them in Chicago for Time, Life, Fortune, Sports Illustrated and other outlets.

The photographer holds the camera is an extension of the eye, but also the humor and world experience behind that eye as well.

There is an emotional heart to the exhibition. The iconic photos of JFK and Nixon prior to there now famous televised debate. King’s casket being unloaded from a plane from Memphis. Inner-city Chicago children playing in run-down playgrounds. There’s Jack Kennedy appearing in conference with a Native American chief, “Two Chiefs”. And there’s Jimmy Hoffa, in a suit, behind bars. “It’s called, ‘Hoffa in Jail’. I knew Hoffa,” Shay says, “We used to play handball in Detroit. Hell of a handball player. It’s in Lewisberg Prison, and he’s holding the coat to hide the handcuffs.”

The talent and skill of the artist appears through the passion, humor, and history of the show. In, “Masai Spear Thrower”, the photographer catches the hunter’s spear in flight, on it’s arc, the second it leaves his hand in Nairobi. All of the work at the exhibition is done ‘in-camera’.

“I am not an agonizer. I work in the equivalent of bolts of controlled lighting, getting ideas and varying the themes that make them publishable.” Shay explains. “In covering JFK addressing 100,000 farmers live in North Dakota, I didn't like the composition of Kennedy at one side---so I had the sponsors move a flagpole with flying pennants of different colors on it so it composed well across from Kennedy. I had just purchased the then new Widelux camera- 140 degrees- and my first picture of JFK with it ran in Time across two pages.”

For Art Shay, a chance to show "Art's True Colors”, “is an important segment of my life's work- at last.” And for others, this show provides lessons, and yet for others still, remembrance.

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