Art Shay has been a troublemaker ever since he moved from the Bronx to San Francisco to become Life magazine's youngest bureau chief at 26. "That was recently," he jokes, "in 1948."
On election day of that year, then-California governor and Republican candidate for vice president Earl Warren was posing for staged press photos as he pretended to cast his ballot in an Oakland garage. "All the photographers from San Francisco took the same picture for each of the six newspaper services. So I thought, 'My god, this is a great Life spread,'" Shay remembers, speaking by phone from his home near Chicago.
But of course, he couldn't settle for the same staged photograph that all the others were taking -- he wanted the real thing. So when Warren slipped behind the curtain of the voting booth, Shay followed behind and lifted the curtain to snap a photo of Warren actually filling in his ballot.
"It was a violation of privacy," Shay acknowledges. But it's his willingness to violate privacy for the sake of art that has allowed him to produce his most famous photographs, including Simone de Beauvoir naked in a bathroom, Muhammad Ali just after knocking out opponent Alex Miteff, the Supremes looking exhausted backstage after a 1965 concert in Detroit and Judy Garland hysterical with laughter in a Chicago dressing room. These photos and more than 100 others are on display now in Shay's West Coast debut at drkrm gallery.
It was also Shay's willingness to cross personal boundaries that cost him his job after just two years. "I wasn't mature enough to be bureau chief," he admits, "so they shipped me to Chicago and I got a lot of stories out here as a reporter." By 1951, Shay had matured immensely, it seems: he was supporting a wife and two kids as a highly-sought-after freelance photographer for publications like Time, Life, the Saturday Evening Post, Fortune, Business Week and Sports Illustrated, which published its first issue in 1954.
"By my fourth year [of freelancing], I was turning down assignments and I had more work than I could use," Shay recalls. "I was doing okay for a pushy Jewish kid from the Bronx." Okay is an understatement. Shay was the go-to photographer for campaign reporting, mafia stories, celebrity exposes and more.
Joe Thorndike, who served as managing editor of Life magazine from 1936 to 1939, once joked that he'd send Shay to cover the second coming of Jesus, because while other photographers were busy setting up their tripods, Shay would scoop in and get 36 photos along with a release form.
During the late 1950s and early 1960s, Shay traveled to about 15 different cities, including Los Angeles and Las Vegas, for a series of more than 60 stories about the mafia for Time, Life and Sports Illustrated. "My wife used to come along as a cover and we had a camera [hidden] in her purse," Shay remembers.
Though his reporting on the mafia required him to go undercover and hide his "long luscious lenses" inside briefcases and purses, Shay is known for his direct, sometimes audacious approach as a photographer. Take, for example, a crime story he was working on that required him to photograph a suspected serial killer who was wanted by the FBI. "He was a nice mild type, so I just came into his dealership, and I had a $100 bill out and I said, 'Hey I'm from Life magazine, and they're going to give me $200 to take your picture. I'll split it with you if you pose for me.'" Needless to say, Shay got his photograph.