Art Shay, who has spent his career documenting the lives of others, is now the subject of a documentary himself.
Milwaukee filmmaker Ken Hanson says he and his collaborators are about 10 months into the project about the renowned Chicago-based photographer, who took pictures of the famous — Muhammad Ali, John F. Kennedy and Elizabeth Taylor, among others — as well as the perfectly average, whom he photographed while out and about with his camera.
Shay lives in the same Deerfield home he moved into more than six decades ago with his late wife, Florence. It has been, and continues to be, a remarkable life. One that includes career highs and personal lows (including the death of his son, Harmon, who disappeared shortly before his 21st birthday). Three tours of duty as a flight navigator during World War II with Jimmy Stewart as his commanding officer. A hard-core racquetball player who became the over-60 national champion in 1982.
"I worry more about getting it down to a reasonable story," said Hanson. "If you're familiar with his life, it really is a marvel. And getting it down to a cohesive, entertaining two-hour film is the challenge. He's lived an intense life."
When I reached Shay by phone, he said he was open to the idea of turning the tables on himself, though "I don't think I'm exactly a photogenic character anymore." That trenchant sense of humor was evident throughout our conversation.
I asked if a good portion of the film will focus on his friendship with (and photos of) Nelson Algren. "No, no. Actually, it won't. Not if I have anything to do with it. I absolutely have advanced far beyond that."
Hanson may have other ideas: "He spent almost 10 years with Nelson Algren knocking around Chicago, and I think those years are among his most interesting."
Shay's photographs are the kind that pull you into the frame. A shot of a young Marlon Brando, in profile, looking affectionately at his dog. An irony-soaked picture from the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, of soldiers standing with their rifles under a sign at the Conrad Hilton that reads "Welcome Democrats." A film like this creates all sorts of opportunities to memorialize the stories behind these photographs.
"We've been capturing those," Hanson said. "But I'm also interested in what drives the man. He's still taking pictures. He'll have done six exhibitions in recent memory. He works harder than you or I. And he's 92. What drives a person to do that? I've been trying to get the story behind the story. He isn't real complicated about his work. He's really very direct. And I've been trying to sort of peel the onion to see if there isn't something more there."
According to Shay, "We've done about six sessions so far, averaging about three hours each."
Among the back stories he tells is that of his portrait of Simone de Beauvoir, the French intellectual, feminist writer and Algren's paramour. "It's not just one of his more famous, it's one of his best," Harmon said of the picture.
She stands in bathroom at the sink, her back to the camera, both arms raised as she fixes her hair in the mirror. She is not wearing a stitch of clothing except for a pair of high-heel slides.
I asked Shay how the photograph came about.
"She was living with Algren at 1523 Wabansia," he said. "He had a $10-a-month apartment and the bathroom facilities were minimal. So he showered and worked out everyday at the Y. Of course, it's a male Y, they wouldn't let her shower there, no matter who she was.
"So Algren called me up, and he sometimes affected a Milwaukee Avenue mode of speech for some reason, and he said, 'Hey, can you borrow me a shower?' I said, 'Why?' And he said, 'Madame was thrown out of the Division Street Y.'
"So I borrowed him a bathroom from an advertising lady I knew, up on the North Side. I picked (de Beauvoir) up at Algren's place, and she was pleasantly flirty and wanted to know if my wife was sexy and if my wife was good in bed and if I was a happily married man. I mean, she grilled me pretty good." Shay was 27, de Beauvoir was 39.
Did Algren hint that maybe this would be a photo opportunity? "Oh, not at all. That was the furthest thing from his or even my mind. I always carry a camera. And he did tell me that she generally leaves the bathroom door open. That was all he said, he didn't mean anything by it. Just describing her behavior.
"When she heard the camera click, it was a Leica, she turned around and said, 'Oh, you naughty man,' and then she turned back to doing her hair. She didn't give a damn! So I took about three or four more pictures."
Shay's stories tend to branch off into tangents as he remembers related details, which likely presents a challenge for a filmmaker trying to keep the conversation focused.
"He's beginning to suffer from the things that you would expect a 92-year-old to suffer from, to a very, very limited extent," said Hanson. "But most of the time what I'm getting is a man who has led an incredible life, trying his best to set the record the straight."
In what way? "I believe he is underappreciated as a photographer when you think of contemporaries like Eugene Smith or Henri Cartier-Bresson. I think that his work really is competitive in a lot of ways with those photojournalists and yet, and I've studied a fair amount of photography, Art Shay is really not regarded in the same league. So I think that he is interested in somebody taking him seriously."
Six years ago, a piece about the famous de Beauvoir image ran in the New Yorker. It's an odd write-up and it speaks to Hanson's point about Shay's work being casually dismissed.
Here is writer Adam Gopnik describing the photo: "The picture was taken, in 1950, by, of all people, an American — the photographer Art Shay — in, of all places, Chicago, where Beauvoir was canoodling bilingually with Nelson Algren."
Of all people! Of all places!
"This is the kind of thing that happens to a Frenchwoman in Chicago," Gopnik decides, "when her boyfriend is a blue-collar writer and everyone drinks bourbon and leaves the bathroom door open."
Look, de Beauvoir was nobody's victim of exploitation. But if you want to shrug off a photographer's considerable achievement as nothing more than a drunken accident, that's one way to do it.
Hanson's forthcoming film — which might be finished in time to submit to Sundance next year — promises to do just the opposite.
For information about Art Shay's work and upcoming exhibitions go to artshay.com.
Slice-of-life, as comedy
Columbia College Chicago-trained writer-director Joe Burke calls his new mircobudget indie "Four Dogs" a "voyeuristic, slice-of-life comedic drama, centering around the world of 22-year-old Oliver, who lives with his aunt and her four dogs in Encino." The film, which is somewhat improvised, also stars Second City alum Dan Bakkedahl as Oliver's equally directionless friend. Indiewire calls the film an "easy, breezy comedy about a pair of hapless guys drifting aimlessly through existence. Moving at a leisurely, episodic pace, the film captures the meandering sway of life as a low-on-luck actor in Los Angeles." It is currently streamable on Vimeo for $4. Go to vimeo.com/ondemand/fourdogs.
Comedy Central has picked up "Pie Guys" as a digital series, written by and starring Chicago native Jon Barinholtz. The series follows the lives of "three different very breeds of idiot who work as delivery drivers for a pizza shop" and will be released on comedycentral.com later this summer or fall. A number of former Chicago performers are working on the series, including Rob Belushi (son of Jim Belushi), iO alumni Mort Burke and Joe Nunez, Chris Witaske (a recent Second City e.t.c. alum) and Jill Benjamin (Seth Meyers' performing partner from back in the day). Ike Barinholtz (Jon's older brother) and David Stassen, who write as a team on "The Mindy Project," will direct. If the series gets traction online Comedy Central may broadcast it on TV as well.
Black independent cinema
The 12th Chicago African Diaspora Film Festival (curated by Facets) kicks off Friday with a screening of director Stanley Nelson's documentary "Freedom Summer," which uses archival footage and firsthand testimonies to examine the volatile efforts of college students and others from outside Mississippi as they traveled throughout the state in 1964 in an effort to help black residents register to vote. Through Thursday. Go to facets.org.