Photographer Art Shay celebrates the love of his life in his new exhibit ‘My Florence’.
From covering John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign to snapping Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan, Art Shay has seen it all. The Bronx-born, Chicago-based photojournalist, who is as much a local treasure as Studs Terkel or Mike Royko, has enjoyed a long career “making pictures of the world as it is.” And while busy creating dozens of books and generating spreads for magazines such as Life, Fortune and Sports Illustrated (among many others), he always had eyes for Florence, his wife of 67 years, who passed away in 2012. He shares his love in the exhibition “My Florence: Photographs by Art Shay,” opening Jan. 27 at Columbia College Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Photography.
Florence Shay, who for 40 years owned Titles, Inc., a bookshop in Highland Park, was a fixture in her husband’s business. She assisted him administratively, and collaborated with him as well. When he went hunting crime figures in Las Vegas for Life, Mrs. Shay went along as a decoy, and even captured big boss Moe Dalitz with a camera hidden in her handbag.
The exhibit “My Florence” presents more than 70 photographs of Shay’s other half in a variety of situations: as a model (with the family in a Chicago hotel room for one story, testing a hula hoop in another), working in her bookstore, posing with influential friends such as David Mamet and vamping a lá Marilyn Monroe. And while it might be easy to peg the show as a big valentine, Shay sees it as “a Chekhovian story of life in the last 60 years in this area.” Among the shots is one in which Florence — who, along with her husband, was an active member of the fair housing group Deerfield’s Citizens for Human Rights — joins other activists in greeting Eleanor Roosevelt as she arrives to support their cause.
The exhibition includes a few images from Florence’s last months, when she was dying from ovarian cancer. “Being a journalist, you can’t turn yourself off just because it’s your own life that’s being shown,” says Shay. But overall, “My Florence” conveys the best and brightest moments of their shared lives. According to Shay, one of his wife’s favorite images was one of the first he ever took of her, in 1942, when both were at a camp in the Catskills. “She was about 20 years old,” he says. “She was a good dancer and she’s up leaping up, her shoes flapping in her hands, just a smiling, beautiful woman against a heroic sky. She never believed she was as beautiful as she was.”
‘My Florence: Photographs by Art Shay’: Free. Jan. 27-May 24, Museum of Contemporary Photography, 600 S. Michigan; Mocp.org