Swans Commentary » swans.com May 19, 2008  



The False Twins: Art Shay And Nelson Algren


by Peter Byrne


Book Review



Shay, Art: Chicago's Nelson Algren. Photographs and text. Foreword by David Mamet. Seven Stories Press, NYC, 2007, ISBN 978-1-58322-764-0, 167 pages. (The first version of this book was published in 1988 by the University of Illinois Press as Nelson Algren's Chicago, 122 pages. Chicago's Nelson Algren contains additional photos recently discovered.)


(Swans - May 19, 2008)   James Boswell on Dr. Johnson now makes a better read than the total pile of the good Doctor's musty 18th century lucubrations. The biographer's selfless attachment to his idol paid off, at least for us. Is this happening to Art Shay's painstaking delineation of Nelson Algren? There was the same younger man's admiration for a master. Likewise the respect of the practitioner of a lesser genre for what the young man thought a more exalted one. Boswell reported; Johnson created. Shay, a Life staff reporter before he became a photojournalist was always enamored of real lit, poetry, and fancy writing. (He's still misty-eyed over Lawrence Durrell.) That and his big-family, Bronx kid's capacity for friendship motivated his decade of paling around with Chicago's most problematic novelist.

But let's stop before being carried away on the back of this cute analogy. Algren remains very rewarding reading, if not for the same reasons we gave thirty years ago. More important, the twenty-five thousand images Shay has published leave no doubt that he could handle a multitude of subjects. In fact, however quirky it appears in a review of a Shay book on Algren, we ought to apply surgery to the illusion that the two friends were Siamese twins.

Algren traveled in a rut. He liked it in there with misfortune comforting him on both sides. A fairy conned him in the cradle that the world was not such a bad place. But when Nelson got into short pants and went out to play he found out differently. He never forgave the bent fairy or the world, and spent his life proving her a liar and the universe a shit heap. There was nobody decent out there save the odd witless whore or pimp with a one-eyed brain. (The working class was all right but remained shadowy and abstract in Algren's writing.) Birth was a no-win hand and if things ever looked up for him he would self-destruct and gamble himself back into that narrow groove. His point, made over and over again, was that losers aren't winners.

The only reason Art Shay got into that rut was to get better camera angles. As for the world -- Shay loved the place and was out early in life looking it over and playing his part. He had a family behind him and that meant he had to stand behind it too. He was also the proud, never reluctant, son of Jewish immigrants. That meant he went to WWII with the firm conviction that the Third Reich had to be stopped. Shay put his life on the line in fifty-three combat missions while his writer friend played out the role of the original slacker in uniform, his Jewish heredity cast off as if it were a burden.

What does a cautious young father have in common with an absent-minded bachelor who happened to marry three times, twice to the same bride? Here were two men very much not of a kind. The writer, a powerful creator, was monochromic, smitten by the "color of pavement." The photographer, on his side, spent a long life scuttling up and down the rainbow, eyes open to every tint. The people in his pictures do a lot of ridiculous things, but Art Shay never subjects them to ridicule. Nor does he use them to hammer home a point. They are the point.

Some people thought that Algren's nose for misery came from a Christ complex or that too much Dostoevsky had ruined his liver. Harsher spirits concluded that he was simply peeved full-time. Search for pique in Shay's acres of work and you will find only one flash of ire. He differed radically with the gentle Kurt Vonnegut on pacifism. Art dropped bombs on Dresden that Kurt, down below, saw the noisy other ends of. Shay had it in for the Nazis and took his chances against them: He was on the raid over Kassel when twenty-five of the thirty-five B 24 Liberators and 114 airmen were lost. Vonnegut survived too but, like Shay, just. One of them saw the ordeal as Studs Terkel's Good War, the other as a horror that transposed made the great antiwar book, Slaughterhouse Five. They were both right, and they were both wrong.

With Shay and Algren each standing in his own pool of light, we can now watch the genial photographer bring them together again in his generous forty page preface full of piquant memories of his dear friend. Shay, away from the camera, is a lively, incisive writer. The paragraphs he adds to his photos aren't mere captions but nuggets of Chicago lore.

Of course Shay respects the first rule of his profession and keeps out of the picture. But that doesn't mean he's invisible. His face is everywhere, like Paul Cezanne's on all those views of Mont Sainte Victoire or Damien Hirst's on his lumps of dead meat under glass. Forget Christopher Isherwood's neat, wrong-headed motto: "I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording not thinking." Art Shay is no comatose, submissive, gawking never-closed shutter. He obtained his first published photos by being on the qui vive, outwitting a superior officer and outthinking mechanical contrivances. Flying back to Britain in 1944 from a mission over Europe, Shay saw two bombers about to collide above him and had to fight off a rules-and-regulations fanatic to get his shots.

In post WWII America, a spread in Life or Look had become the Main Street talking point that Fred Allen or Jack Benny's radio shows had been a few years before. Shay had the good luck to be part of this breakthrough of photojournalism. It not only meant that he prized spontaneity and didn't need rehearsals. It also put him in the cultural mainstream and kept him from falling into an "artistic"-photographer's narrow specializations. He didn't have to shoot exclusively left-handed spaniels or higher than fifty-foot ocean waves at noon to make himself memorable.

His panorama shots constitute some of his most impressive work. It's disconcerting to find the German artist of the 1990s, Thomas Struth, declared the innovator in this field. Shay's crowds at Comiskey Park, (Page 4) Hawthorne racetrack (Page 7), or on Skid Row (Page 9) raised Struth's questions back in the 1960s without any avant-garde pretensions. Who are these people? What have they got to do with the rest of the crowd or with this particular place?

Interestingly, Algren, whose head often bobs up in these shots, could just as well be blotted out without harm to the photograph, even perhaps increasing its significance. For Shay's work has many facets. He sets out to show the writer in the milieu he wrote about. But a kibitzer might question whether putting this aim first doesn't distract us. In a late interview Shay recalled a photo of Saul Bellow taken by a colleague many years before. Bellow refused to sit still indoors for a shot like those that Italians put on the tombstone of the deceased. He went outside, found some kids playing and told them to follow him single file. Shay never got over the weightless beauty of that shot. Algren here isn't always an actor in movement. He's often simply an extraneous voyeur. (Pages 11, 98)

Shots where the writer becomes the subject of a portrait are something else. (Page 54) Shay is one of those portraitists whose palms you can imagine sweating with the intimacy of the operation. Who ever saw this Martin Luther King but his wife one gray dawn? (Page 46) Inconsolable, the "I Like Ike" matron (Page 39), but not because of any mishap to her candidate. It's her life she's bemoaning.

Look at the black cop talking nice (Page 130) to the battle-scarred whore on a hospital cot and you see two full lives. The grimness is tempered by the humor of the patrolman's interest beyond the call of duty and the woman's impressive behind. The photographer's split seconds can be multiplied by years and add up to a whole existence. The two Yiddish stallholders in Maxwell Street have on their mugs, beneath their unforgettable hats, (Page 103) the worst and best of 20th century history. You almost don't want to look.

And Simone de Beauvoir? (Page 158) She's gingerly fitting Shay into her world view as he summons up unaccustomed respect and distance. She was one of those disturbed by the photographer's taste for puns and contrived juxtaposition. Her intelligence may have been penetrating, but the purity she was after excluded several layers of Shay's exuberance.

Decades later, Shay was still having critical fingers shaken at him for his punning frivolity. A Chicago Tribune aesthete called him out for teaming up street signs with his subject matter in facile irony. The photographer was too polite to point out that if the critic didn't like the wording he ought simply to look at the picture, which always held its own graphic and emotional rewards beneath the verbal high jinx. Instead Shay simply writes:

When I was younger this [criticism] bothered me, but when I passed 80 I realized that my eye has been, among other things, a playful hunter, a restless concatenator. For better or worse I couldn't possibly change its humor any more than I could change its humour. Any more than Mel Brooks can stop seeing his world his way. (Page 84)

But as a writer Shay's a softy. He often makes his picture tell the hard truth. Of Algren's poker playing, he writes, "He was only a fair player but thought himself a master." (Page xxii) Look more closely at one of those classic shots of Algren with cigar as he studies his hand of cards. (Page 25) He seems to be musing on the last trick while the young sharper on his left is thinking two tricks ahead.

The real soul shakers here are other: The black woman living in the back of a truck but not forgetting to put a coat on her dog against the Chicago winter. (Page 104) The ageless black man at home in a ruin where he manages to make a cup of coffee and welcome back his tail-wagging best friend as to a family reunion. (Page 105) Shay took these shots but he passes over them when he names his favorite. That's because he doesn't see misery as the human bedrock but only as one of humanity's vile weeds. His preferred among his twenty-five thousand photos is of another tenor: A beauty salon open late catering for working women. In the foreground a window full of plastic busts where twinkling jewelry hangs on synthetic necks under Barbie faces and flourishing wigs. In the background, under a dryer sits an older, flesh-lapped woman, enjoying her sit-down, hoping for improvements but not banking on them. (Page 70) That's the man-with-the-camera's position.

Art Shay isn't a marvel because he's eighty-six years old. He's a marvel because he's a man and artist of exception.


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Published May 19, 2008