Art Shay sat in the living room of his Deerfield split-level last week, fumbling with his hearing aids.
“The red dot means the right ear,” he said with a chuckle as he examined the piece of plastic he had just pulled from his left ear. Happily, the 90-year-old Shay’s mordant sense of humor has out-lasted his hearing.
Shay blew out his eardrums nearly seven decades ago, on a photo shoot for a new magazine called Sports Illustrated. He was at the National Target Shooting Championships in Vandalia, Ohio, taking pictures, when someone fired a shell a few feet from him.
“I heard beeping in my ears and I started taking it down like it was Morse code,” said the World War II vet. “But it never bothered my photographs.”
Shay is one of the greatest photographers in Chicago history. While Nelson Algren chronicled the city, he chronicled Algren, beginning in 1949, capturing not just the legendary writer but also the city’s storefront beauty parlors, snowy alleyways, and dance halls.
He photographed Chicago police clubbing protesters at the 1968 Democratic Convention, Hugh Hefner’s bedroom office, and John F. Kennedy’s 1960 presidential campaign. He also got in a few nude shots of Algren’s sweetheart, Simone de Beauvoir (one was displayed at the Louvre—a floor up from da Vinci, Shay pointed out).
His work as a sports photographer is often overlooked. Late last month, though, he got some long-deserved recognition when he was inducted into the national Racquetball Hall of Fame.
Racquetball—originally called “paddle racquets”—was invented in 1949. When the game was young, Shay’s photographs, including 30 cover photographs for Racquetball Magazine, were critical in helping the game find a wider audience.
“We were lucky that he loved the sport and this was a passion,” said Randy Stafford, a former president of USA Racquetball. “Otherwise the old pictures we’d be looking at today would be little brownies.”
Shay recently donated his entire archive of racquetball negatives, numbering more than five thousand, to Stafford’s new online museum. He also still has a copy of the check from a racquetball feature he wrote for Playboy in 1967 displayed on a bookshelf. It was for $2,500. “That’s like 10 thousand bucks today,” Shay said. Actually, it’s more like $16,000.
While reporting and photographing racquetball’s best, he made sure to sneak in a few games, getting good enough to win the over-60 national championship in 1982.
Shay grew up in the Bronx, where in high school he started shooting kids’ plays and bar mitzvahs with a Foth Derby camera. It’s also where he learned to play handball, which later spawned his amateur racquetball career. After two tours of duty flying in World War II and another flying humanitarian missions in the South Pacific, he went to work for Life as a reporter and then a photographer.
Of all his subjects, Shay said, his favorite was President Kennedy. “You can’t take a bad picture of that guy,” he said.
His photos are part of the Art Institute’s permanent collection, and in 2008 the Museum of Contemporary Art curated an exhibit called Art Shay: Chicago Accent. One of his shots of the 1968 Democratic convention hangs in the office of playwright David Mamet.
I asked Mamet if there was something uniquely Chicago about Shay’s images. His answer: “Yes, Art.”
“Our eyes are assaulted by most pictures,” Shay explained. “My philosophy is that a picture should exist on different levels. It should frame competing elements.”
Shay is a small man with kind features framed by tufts of white hair. He uses a chair lift to go up and down the stairs from his living room to his bed room on the second floor (when the doorbell rang one afternoon he announced, “My new knees are here!”). Seated in his favorite armchair, he scrolled through his archives on a laptop. The stories flowed, as full and rich as his pictures.
There was the night he flew cross-country with Elizabeth Taylor snoozing in the next seat. Shay calls it “the time I slept with Elizabeth Taylor.”
Then there was the visit from Ernest Hemingway at an airbase outside London during World War II. Hemingway showed Shay the manuscript for his next novel, one that was never published. The title: “Onward Christian Soldier Marching to a Whore.”
Shay’s wife, Florence, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer last year, but between trips to the hospital for her chemotherapy, he is working on a set of photographs for Smashing Pumpkins front-man Billy Corgan’s band. Corgan, incidentally, has become a frequent Sunday morning guest at the Shays’ home for bagels and lox.
“(Art has) the gift of capturing that ‘decisive moment’ that separates the legends from the rest of us punters who press buttons and call ourselves photographers,” Corgan wrote in an email. “Art’s eye extends to those overlooked aspects of the human condition that have informed his opinions of the world.”
Even at 90, Shay usually has a camera around his neck. Since 1976, he’s been documenting Northbrook Court Mall. He has a freezer full of Ektachrome and high speed black and white film and blogs today for Chicagoist—where he discusses and shares his vast collection.
Shay even has an iPhone, although he doesn’t take many photos on it. He prefers his Samsung T500.
“It has the heft and speed of a Leica,” he said.
SOME OF SHAY’S FAVORITES…
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BEN STRAUSS, Senior Editor, is a writer born, raised and living in Chicago. He contributes regularly to The New York Times. Follow him on Twitter @bstrauss1.
STORY ART: Main image made in-house with anchor photo courtesy schani/cc; current photo of Art Shay by Ben Strauss.