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Remembering Art Shay Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

11 May 2018

Art Shay had done everything in life. Late last month he managed to add one last thing to his list. At the age of 96, he passed away at his home in Deerfield, Ill.

We celebrated his life last year in a matinee on the occasion of his lifetime achievement award from the Lucie Foundation held at Carnegie Hall. Shay ended his remarks by playing a little tune on his harmonica. Every Jewish kid, he explained, is expected to make it to Carnegie Hall some day.

That was Shay. Versatile. And amusing about it.

He completed over 1,500 photo assignments for Fortune, Life, Look, Sports Illustrated and Time magazines. Marlon Brando, Elizabeth Taylor, Muhammad Ali, Jimmy Hoffa, Ernest Hemingway, Senator Joseph R. McCarthy and President John F. Kennedy all sat for him. And in his spare time, he documented the streets of Chicago, his adopted hometown.

That same guy wrote over 60 books and five plays.

He made a name for himself when in he photographed a midair collision between two B-24 planes in June 1944 and sold the images to Look for $100.

His parents were penniless immigrants from Eastern Europe who had four sons they brought up in the Bronx on a tailor's wages which left little for luxuries. But his father Herman put $2 down on a Royal typewriter for Art, resolved to pay it off at 25 cents a week.

When Shay won a bingo game, he paid the typewriter off.

He got his start in photography as a Boy Scout, learning his way around a darkroom. In high school wrote for the school paper. He left Brooklyn College to join the Army Air Forces as a navigator, flying with Jimmy Stewart and surviving a deadly air battle in September 1944 in Kassel, Germany, in which more than 100 U.S. airman were lost. He received the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Croix de Guerre.

He made a name for himself when in he photographed a midair collision between two B-24 planes in June 1944 and sold the images to Look for $100. He tried to parlay that fame into a job as a photographer with Life in 1947 but they hired him as a writer instead.

And that's how he learned the art of telling a story in photographs.

He started freelancing in 1951. It was the beginning of a 40-year career in the thick of things with his camera.

That 1944 sequence of the midair collision wasn't his best move that year. He also married Florence Gerson with whom he had five children. They met at a summer camp where she was a counselor. He played the bugle.

She'd go with him on his photo assignments, hiding his camera in her purse when it would not be welcome. Like when he shot mobsters before they could shoot him.

She passed away in 2012. Shay consoled himself by publishing My Florence: A 70-Year Love Story.

In addition to his Web site, Shay's photography is included in the permanent collections of the National Portrait Gallery, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago.

The matinee ends with a funny story about why a photo editor would hire Shay to cover the Second Coming. By the time anybody else had put film in their camera, Shay would have fired off a roll of film and gotten a signed release. From Jesus.

That won't happen after all. But you can bet Shay is up there now negotiating the rights to an exclusive.

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