Interview with Art Shay

Below, an interview Colin Asher conducted with photographer Art Shay. Colin’s article "Never a Lovely So Real," an examination of the life and legacy of Nelson Algren, appears in this month’s issue and is online at believermag.com.

Art Shay has been a professional photographer for about twice as long as I have been alive. He was born in the Bronx, but made a name for himself in Chicago, where he has long been known as a masterful photojournalist and chronicler of “the downtrodden, on their way down or up.” He has, he estimates, taken about two million photographs; a hundred thousand keepers among them. Though he’s a nonagenarian, he wasn’t available for an interview when I first contacted him: too busy. He was preparing for a major retrospective at DRKRM, in Los Angeles; a new book is also in the works, and he has to keep up with his blog and some ongoing projects. Despite all the demands upon his time, Shay did agreed to carve out a few minutes to reminisce about Nelson Algren, a writer he met in 1949 and who later became a friend, and godfather to Shay’s first son. 

A hurricane disrupted our scheduled interview, and then there were technical difficulties. Game to the end, Shay agreed to correspond over email instead. The transcript of our exchange appears below. In it, Shay sings his own praises, defends his old friend against the charge that he was a drunk, quotes Algren’s three rules, and takes a shot at Adam Gopnik. It’s worth a read.

COLIN ASHER: I was hoping you could tell me about meeting Nelson Algren. If I have this right, you met in 1949. What was his reputation at the time? Did he live up to it?

ART SHAY: I met him as The Arm was coming out. He was a fine short story writer and liberal correspondent on all subjects in the mix. His letters to the Trib and Sun-Times were hilarious. I owned a couple of his books but hadn’t read them yet. I just knocked on his door at 1523 Wabansia. It was a one floor walk-up; $10 a month rent. He served tea, I showed him some of the stories I had done for Life and others. We hit it off well, then headed out to walk through his neighborhood, especially Milwaukee Ave and Halsted Street. 

CA: He was near the height of his fame then and you were a younger man, not yet well known. How did he treat you? Was he condescending, or did he treat you as an equal?

AS: Nelson treated every other human respectably. You’d have to know him a long time before he’d open up on the many Chicagoans and New Yorkers he regarded as assholes. 
     I had done nearly a hundred stories for Life and Time as an idea man and a reporter, and a schlepper of equipment for some of Life's greatest fotogs—Eisensteadt, McCombe, Morse, Fenn, Lisa Larsen, Martha Holmes, Rudy Crane, Skadding, Francis Reeves Miller (Life's greatest unsung fotog, its purest journalist at the time.) He [Miller] became my mentor entering the profession; he was also a great pal. He and I did perhaps forty stories together—crime, sports, nature—when I left Life he kept feeding me spare film. Now he was a classic journalist-drinker… he’d fill small film cans with liquor and store those in the camera cases for when times became unbearable.

CA: You were on assignment for Life when you met Algren, and your photos of him were supposed to appear on the magazine’s cover… they never did. What happened? 

AS: The week before it was scheduled Life had me go back to Chicago to get a release from a whore in one of the pictures who had invited Nelson to an afternoon party for 3 bucks. I got the release but meanwhile Life used its essay space that week for a story on a Mexican prison with marriage privileges. That was their downbeat story for the year. It was terrible for Nelson and for me…. because he won the very first National Book Award, and I, having moved from reporting to the camera, covered Nelson getting the award as my first official Life assignment as a fotog. The augury was so good and it played out so bad—like his [Otto] Preminger movie that he abhorred almost as much as he hated Preminger.

CA: How long did you follow him around for that story?

AS: 9 years 

CA: And you became friends?

AS: Yes, right away. He became the godfather of my first son, Harmon, who was murdered in the Hippie times and jungle of Florida in 1972. He was 2 weeks short of his 21st birthday. Nelson wrote us, when Harmon was born, a postcard: “Tell him never to eat at a place named Mom’s, never to play poker with a guy named Doc and never to sleep with a woman who has more troubles than his own.” 

CA: I’ve read that he could be very aloof, and sometimes very distant emotionally. I’ve also read that he was fiercely loyal to those closest to him. How was he as a friend? 

AS: You implied that he was a drunk. Wrong! He drank modestly and fitfully and liked 7 Crown with 7 Up. He usually got a small buzz at intellectual or Time Inc. parties. At the Holiday magazine party—1951—for their Chicago issue at the Drake Hotel, an Ebony magazine editor, a white liberal named Ben Burns, got up at the head table to attack Nelson for “selling out” to Holiday. Burns started his kvetch saying, “I’ve known you for the past 25 years, Nelson, and I say you sold out.” Nelson, a little shaky but grinning confidently, addressed the crowd, pointing to Burns: “Ben Burns,” he said, “You don’t know me no 25 years…You’ve known me on five separate days in the past 25 years.” Big laugh from the audience. 
     He was loyal and imaginative about putting acquaintances together. He was one of the great counter-punchers, a rattlesnake manque.

CA: He was a very compassionate man, wasn’t he? In Bettina Drew’s biography of Algren you tell a very evocative story about reading an article about a mass murderer in the company of Algren and your wife. Algren expressed sympathy for the killer—your wife wanted to kick him out of your house. Was he always that way?

AS: He had sympathy for every underdog, or everyone he regarded as an underdog. Even a convicted murderer who had the words “Hard Luck” tattooed on his knuckles.

CA: Algren had very firm ideas about what art was, or should be. My favorite Algren quote on that subject is: “If you feel you belong to things as they are, you won’t hold up anyone in the alley no matter how hungry you may get. And you won’t write anything that anyone will read a second time either.” He was a man who believed firmly that the artist’s role is to study society from outside of the mainstream, to critique, and tell uncomfortable truths… is there any way his ideas about art influenced your own work?

AS: Yes, I’ve always been a shooter of the downtrodden on their way down or up. That while carrying on a career as Chicago’s acknowledgedly best photojournalist. (The great photo dean of the Illinois Institute of the Arts called me “the best photojournalist Chicago ever produced.”) 

CA: I’ve spent quite a while looking at your photo “Backyard Olympics,” it may be my favorite of your works that I’ve seen. Though the subjects are obviously poor, or nearly poor, you are showing them as they play, and seem so uninhibited and joyful that the dilapidated condition of their neighborhood recedes. It’s an honest picture, but one that does not condescend to its subjects. When I look at it I can understand why the person who took it would be interested in collaborating with Algren. This isn’t really a question, I suppose…but do you have any thoughts about the way your work and Algren’s were similar, or complimentary?

AS: He and Simone, and even her Gallic lover Sartre, all liked my work. A French critic wrote a blurb to this effect. An American critic (Michael Morecia) embarrassed me by comparing my work to Dostoevsky’s, Hemingway’s and Melville’s. 

CA: You’ve had a longer, steadier career than Algren. There have been rumors that he drank heavily, and his biographer claimed that his gambling was out of control. His personal life was often a mess. Why do you think his career declined after The Man With the Golden Arm?

AS: As I said above he was NOT a drunk. He spent too much time playing poker for small stakes, but the reason for his decline was simply writer’s block. He told one friend, “It used to be easy, like a mason puts one brick after the other to make a wall. Now I find it hard to finish a single sentence.” 
     He tried to drown himself in the lagoon fronting his house in Miller Beach in 1956. 

CA: Did his politics play a role in the decline of his career? By the mid-1950s having politics like Algren’s was not a good move.

AS: Politics kept us from getting a big grant in 1949, politics of the 30’s. Like Studs [Terkel] and other liberals he signed every petition you handed him.

CA: And let me ask this: Did he mean what he said about the purpose of art, or was he just a guy working an angle? Did he start writing about skid row because he thought it would sell and get stuck out when his subject was no longer popular?

AS: Algren never gave a single thought to the popularity of his subjects or the effect of his writing on readers. Like all true writers he wrote for himself. 

CA: Is there anything I should have asked and didn’t? 

AS: Yeah, look at the “Talk of the Town” lead story in the New Yorker, Jan 28, 2008. Adam Gopnik did a  story on my famous nude picture of de Beauvoir. Gopnik strays into his own fiction when he alleges that Nelson commissioned the picture for his own egotistical purposes: Bull shit.