After nearly 7 decades, the famed photographer holds his first New York exhibit
Biographers are toilers; pop historians. Scrupulous and often personally unsung, they who set to profile an era (and its star players) must wield a keener attention, sharper gaze, and wider lens than we who merely sit in the audience of history.
It's a tough job, but such is their lot. The task, though, is not merely the province of writers. So argues Art Shay, the renowned photographer who this month opens a new exhibit at New York City's Morrison Hotel Gallery, and whose work has captured and probed the American story since he began at Life Magazine over 60 years ago.
“A photograph is a biography of a moment,” the Bronx native once famously declared. And indeed, Shay is a biographer of many stripes. A polymath of the highest order, he is responsible for more than just some of the 20th Century's most iconic photos; he has, in addition, published over 70 books (from photo collections to sports and children's literature), as well as long-running weekly columns for a variety of publications. Standouts from his oeuvre have graced the covers of many magazines – a figure sometimes cited in the thousands.
Yet Shay is an artist, too. He is the author of many plays, a number of which document his relationship with the American writer Nelson Algren (a friend and repeat collaborator), as well as Simone de Beauvoir (of whom he took notable portraits) and Jean-Paul Sartre.
Now in his early nineties, Shay, who has lived and worked in Chicago for most of his career, betrays not the slightest hint he's considered slowing down. In 2014, he's already debuted an entirely new collection – "My Florence," a tribute to his late wife – which ran through February at the Museum of Contemporary Art and Columbia College Library in Chicago.
Now, in March, he opens his very first New York City exhibit, in SoHo. Though born and raised here – in the grittiest of the five boroughs – Shay has never held a formal showing in the city, despite featuring in so many galleries worldwide he's long since lost count.
A homecoming long overdue, the collection on display at the Morrison Hotel Gallery (located at 116 Prince Street) is a retrospective survey of Shay's enduring career. Comprising between 40 and 50 of his most iconic photographs, the exhibit features both black and white and color images of everyone from Marlon Brando and the Rat Pack, to J.F.K., Mohammad Ali, Vince Lombardi, Robert Crumb, and Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan.
The exhibit affords us the chance to behold a legend still rounding off his life's work. And it's impossible to rove through the cozy downtown gallery without stumbling on portrait after familiar portrait. There is no overstating Shay's stature; his work is so densely coded into the American experience, it has, in many instances, come full circle: Many of his captured moments have hit and permeated the culture with such force, they have themselves become inextricable from the nation's biography.
“Art Shay's one of the best photo-journalists I know," says Hugh Hefner, the subject of one of Shay's more arresting images. But the descriptor, perhaps, doesn't go quite far enough. A journalist he was, but the man was, and is, so much more. Roger Ebert comes a little closer: "Art Shay's photography shakes you up, sets you down gently, pats you on the head and then kicks you in the ass."
The retrospective is open to the public, and will be on display through the first week of April. Prints are available for sale beginning at $1,500, topping out at around $4,000. More of his work can be found at Chicagoist, where he maintains a weekly photo blog.