Art Shay: Chicago Accent

by Matt Damsker


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With a foreward by David Mamet. March, 2007, Stephen Daiter Gallery, 311 W. Superior, Suite 404, Chicago, Illinois 60610; 75 pages, approximately 70 black-and-white plates; trade edition of 1,000 copies; limited edition of 200 in slipcase with an original gelatin silver photograph. Catalogue accompanies recent exhibition of the same name at Daiter Gallery; for information, phone + 312 787 3350, or email .

While E.O. Hoppé and his contemporaries were laying groundwork for photographic modernism, Art Shay was growing up in the Bronx, New York, and by the 1940s he was serving as an air force navigator in World War II. By the war's end, he was publishing his war photographs and soon became Life magazine's San Francisco bureau chief. But his move to Chicago in 1948 inspired him to pursue photojournalism exclusively, resulting in a long, successful, celebrated--and ongoing--career.

This exhibition and catalogue from Chicago's Daiter Gallery documents Shay's wonderful post-war collaboration with Chicago author Nelson Algren ("The Man with the Golden Arm"), a passionate champion of Chicago's underclass. As Shay's frequent photographic subject and inspiration, Algren led Shay's lens to the hidden corners of the Windy City, where it captured the grit and pathos of urban life. This picaresque project stands now as a classic liberal-humanist effort, prodding the viewer toward empathy with the poor, the fallen, the falling-down-drunk and the nighthawks of a tough, toddling town.

In many of these images, we can recognize the chiaroscuro contrast of Hoppé's urban studies, but where Hoppé stuck to the geometry of urban and industrial architecture, Shay's interest lies in people, and some of these images are among the unsentimental best of their kind. This catalogue also includes a number of fine portraits from the 1950s and '60s--of Marlon Brando in a tender moment with his family's dog in Illinois; a prayerful, t-shirted Jimmy Hoffa at home; John F. Kennedy on the campaign trail with native American; a young Muhammed Ali in a Kentucky locker room; Diana Ross and the Supremes in a tense backstage moment; and even Timothy Leary and R. Crumb, avatars of the psychedelic '60s.

Matt Damsker is an author and critic, who has written about photography and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Philadelphia Bulletin, Rolling Stone magazine and other publications. His book, "Rock Voices", was published in 1981 by St. Martin's Press. His essay in the book, "Marcus Doyle: Night Vision" was published this past November.