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.
But the image Shay is most famous for today is a nude photograph of the French theorist Simone de Beauvoir -- captured without her consent. "She was in Chicago with [writer] Nelson Algren and he didn't have a bath tub that was working. He called me over one day and said, 'Hey, my gal wants to take a bath and the YMCA won't let her in. Can you borrow me a bathroom?'" says Shay, imitating Algren's diction.
"I knew a nice young advertising lady in the area, and she left her key outside for me and I drove Simone down to the apartment. She got in the bathroom, left the door open -- and I always carried a camera, I still always do -- and after her shower, she was at the sink doing her face and I couldn't help it. I just did a fast click through the door of her derriere and she turned around and said, 'Oh you naughty man!'" Shay recalls. "She was like 39 [years old] and very pretty and one of the ten smartest women in the world at the time.
"She was the girlfriend of Jean-Paul Sartre and they had a contingency agreement that they could go with other people as long as they told other people what happened. It was an ill-fated love affair with Nelson Algren. There were two French magazines that printed the photograph -- The Observer ran it on the cover. The French editor called me up and all they wanted to know was if she'd seduced me. That's all they wanted to know."
At 90 years old, Shay is still as sharp, busy and mischievous as ever. Aside from producing some of the most famous photographs of the 20th century (he says he's known as the American Cartier-Bresson), Shay has also written plays, piloted combat planes on a tour of duty in World War II and played racquetball professionally (he was inducted into the National Racquetball Hall of Fame last year.)
"If I had another life to live, it would be as a playwright," he declares. This is coming from someone who's managed to seamlessly transition from writer to reporter to photographer to athlete to celebrated war hero and devoted husband and father, all in the course of one lifetime.
Shay isn't done causing trouble yet: He's currently collaborating on a photo project with his good friend and art collector Billy Corgan, who lives in a Chicago suburb near Shay. He's also working on a book of photographs dedicated to his late wife of 67 years, who "was quite a beauty."
He can still remember all the stories behind each of his photographs from more than half a decade ago, and he continues to obsessively snap photos as he embraces the advantages of digital photography. "If I were dead and you woke me up, I'd still be able to load my Leica with my eyes shut. I still miss it very much," he says.
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As an artist, Shay will still find any way to capture "the things that people do to each other, without meaning to." Case in point: a couple of weeks ago, he was in a restaurant and grabbed his assistant's digital camera when he saw the following: "Five people sitting at a table. Nice looking, suburban people. The four kids and the husband all were talking on the phone or looking at the phone or texting, and the poor mother is just sitting there, she didn't have a phone for Christ's sake. That's the kind of thing that strikes me as passing strange."
Shay's retrospective is on display now through April 6 at drkrm.
Update: the exhibition has been extended through April 13.