by Raju Peddada
(Swans - October 6, 2008) As an ardent collector of books, thumbing through Chicago's Nelson Algren disappointed me immensely for the title as well as the quality of the production. I am confounded as to how a publisher can offer Shay's evocative and provocative photographs and his acerbic writing on an uncoated stock, and that too in a soft cover format. The contents of this book deserve a 100lb gloss coated text weight for the body and a 12 point Chrome-kote soft cover or cloth bound hard cover as an archival edition. The present edition will in all likelihood get dog-eared by the time it is passed on to our children, while the University of Illinois Press 1988 edition titled Nelson Algren's Chicago by Shay will continue to remind our grandchildren of the legendary corporeal experiences of both these intrepid and introspective Chicagoans.
If we had to study Shay's photographic oeuvre as social commentary it would become a review on ourselves, but if we pay attention to his books as a whole, it is a commentary on the man himself. Reviews abound on the two-dimensional augury of Shay's life, but a study will be intriguing if we were to follow our instincts and peel that onion beyond the conventional wisdom. Then we can perhaps see Shay's third and fourth dimension. What I intend to say is that a study of his photographs reveals to us the beauty, serendipitous compositions, immediacy, and the putative poignancy in his skill and vision; but if we peer hard, his work reveals to us an imperceptible palimpsest of his personal experiences that Shay bashfully stashes away from our sight, stuff that really shaped him and his craft.
This is not an opinion of his photographic mastery, but an attempt to know the man behind the work, which we resist and fail to comprehend, perhaps for the fear of recognizing ourselves in the process. If we see some of Shay's masterpieces closely, there is an eerie feeling, as if somehow our life story was put on "pause" like on a DVD player, and as we peer into his pictures with imagination we automatically press "play" and see our ironical and melancholic lives unfold. We experience his pictures funneling us into the labyrinth of our own denials, as this sepia world in an apathetic dimension leaves us grasping for the alacrity in moments that we so much wanted to retain. The memories become holographic images of action that remain in our consciousness and are triggered by Shay's pictures into action.
For us to experience what he saw in totality must be an act of faith -- faith in his vision, vulnerability, and vices, the same aspects that define us. Shay lays out his work as an allusive biography that reluctantly reminds us of our own romanticism, longings and foibles. Beyond the obvious comprehension everybody claims, Shay through his books has given us an account of his depth in more ways than one. A man who flew thirty combat missions for you and me, never reminding us of it, a man who refuses to relinquish his solidarity for Algren, a man who continues to pass on credit due to him to his friend, a man who is dedicated to the memory of a friend who exited the terrestrial habitation long ago, and above all else, a man who has managed to stick to his harshest critic for the better part of six decades, his fascinating wife Florence. I don't know about you, but to me, in today's world of usurpation of credit, pusillanimous friends and sycophants, Shay's laconic veracity and avowal of friendship to both Algren and his wife through his work and otherwise is almost chimerical.
The real Shay, despite all the books, reminds me of a mysterious person who always lurks in the alleys of our life, half hidden in the shadows and feet revealed in the rays of the setting sun, ready to assail us at the slightest hint of our stupor or banality. This mysterious quality in his work and persona has triggered this curiosity, hence my deliberations here. We do not know if Nelson Algren indeed reached the pinnacle in his craft, a debatable issue; but we certainly know that Algren's pen transmogrified into a camera in the hands of Art Shay and enabled Algren to continue living into the twenty-first century. Simultaneously the camera in the hands of Shay reverts to a quill with which he traces his commentary on us, the society. In seeing and reading Shay's work it is not about our judgment on his attainment of stature in his oeuvre, it is about the attainment of capability and maturity in our sensibilities and discernment. It is a judgment on us as to our growth as perceptive beings that can penetrate the two-dimensional limitations and probity of his work, and grasp the essence of the man and his brooding dimensions of story within stories and memory within memories.
In many sub-Saharan tribal cultures photography is prohibited by the elders. They think that the act of photographing one of them or the tribe is tantamount to committing a larceny of their spirit. In the same train of thought, let me propose that Shay arrests our spirits with his work and forces us to examine ourselves in the context of our existentialism. We can only decode Shay's work through our innermost experiences; otherwise, his work can intimidate and smack us for our platitude. His photographs are our confessions of moments that we conveniently forgot; also, his pictures are mirrors that force us to see what we have become in our most trying circumstances.
Shay's aesthetic capacity overwhelms and eclipses what he really is, a man belonging to the greatest generation trapped in his own glorious value system that has become transcendental and sort of obsolete. The title Chicago's Nelson Algren reluctantly reveals Art Shay...a man that belongs to a time when credit meant giving it rather than confiscating it and friendships cherished beyond our terrestrial time. Shay happens to be an anachronism in the age of usurpation.
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