by Raju Peddada
[Author's preface: It's hard to review photography that is this personal: the celebration of a partner. The reviewer in me is a calculating and cold aesthetic beast, immersed in such abstract concepts as linearity, balance, color, light, composition, conditions, shutter speed, F-stops, and aesthetical metaphysics -- measuring devices that assist in the canonization of photographic art, or kill it altogether. But, how do you analyze and review feelings? Analysis is endogenously negative -- how can you deconstruct feelings? Discernment or judgment, despite the presence of all the aforementioned qualities, takes a back seat to something that is immeasurable: emotions. Therefore, this disquisition is more a salutation to the art of life and its celebration by the two purveyors of beauty, Art and Florence. The photographs are both piercing and poignant, of an era when the nuclear family came of age.]
"Maybe we could have it photo-shopped."
—Florence Shay (1922-2012)
Defiance, in the face of death, when her oncologist tried showing her cancer's resurgence on the computer screen. Art captured Florence's reaction -- one of the most powerful images I had ever seen. It clutches and lingers in you.
(Swans - June 2, 2014) Yes, you can celebrate 67 years of marriage, when it's over. But, how do you arrive at this unfathomable number? Well, you have a 67-year marriage, when you celebrate every day, like Art and Florence did. By taking their first picture on the day they met, in 1942. By having 5 kids, by having separate careers, by raising a family, and by living together till they were 90! Florence Shay passed away on August 22, 2102, and the exhibit titled "My Florence" (MoCP-Museum of Contemporary Photography at the Columbia College, Jan. 27 through May 24, 2014) is Art Shay's public catharsis -- a rare allowance into their private moments through the decades. A few days ago, I had a bizarre dream while I slumbered fitfully. Shay slaps my head -- jerking me up, "Hey, boy, see my exhibit with your heart -- not with your fucking mind -- got it?!"
We don't need an introduction to Art Shay again -- we all know him through his iconic images that speak volumes on our American condition for almost seven decades. He's the "recorder of our history," as Garry Wills so aptly uttered. From Life magazine's picture of year, Khrushchev on a Iowa farm, to the photograph of the last man who saw Lincoln's corpse, his pictures are the visual memoirs of our contemporary country. This personal photographic journey is that of his family, beginning with an energetic eloping couple, to a burgeoning family, through middle age in poignant moments, and the imminent conclusion. Florence was, what she appeared as, in those photographs.
This was a real treat, because I had the privilege of knowing them for almost 8 years as a regular client of Florence and a regular critic of Art's work. I couldn't miss this one, and a good friend whose insights were invaluable accompanied me. Even if you did not know this couple, these photographs are historic -- a classic aesthetic record of an American family in the mid 20th century. We could feel the palpable energy -- starting with that levitating Florence -- it's the celebration of youth, and the future: "I am happy!"
A few photographs into the exhibit is an alluring image of a kneeling Florence and her daughter Jane, all decked up -- radiant is the word I'd use. Subject matter can only take you so far, but it's the artist behind the camera that renders your mundane matter into something profoundly arresting. Shay's instinctive, yet trained combination of skills, especially waiting patiently for the right moment to click the shutter, sets him apart from your average enthusiast. I would advance this further by postulating that this "timing of the moment" is what separates boys from men. Very few practitioners of this art have mastered it -- Shay is the only living photographer that overwhelms us with his profound ordinary moments, as did Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Capa. He's the last of such a breed.
We moved from resplendence to repose with this mother and daughter combination. Another casual photograph, but this one is a pregnant Florence with little Jane reading on a club chair. Even the light and tone speaks of languorous waiting. Can you imagine light and color fighting with the mood of the subject? There are many favorites in this exhibit -- one of them is a beautiful composition of their "$13,000 Des Plaines Wonder" home. Light fills the room with Florence sitting to the left and children milling around, set against a white wall with a trumpet hanging right in the center. The photograph is bottom heavy -- ballasted, with one small counter point in the center and top -- the trumpet.
The picture that stole quite a few minutes from me was this one: Florence is lying down, yawning, while little Jane, butt naked, is standing by the wall with her back towards the camera, on the right. It's a dark composition, full of portents and possibilities. The strong horizontal represented by Florence is offset by the resolute vertical of the child. Is it that age reclines, while the future is poised? What is even more interesting is the deliberate cropping at the bottom -- with only Florence's face and frontal topography, while what she's lying on is not visible. Perhaps this was due to the space available -- but isn't art the skill and awareness of doing well with what you have?
The next picture applied my brakes, and it happened to be one from the cars: The 1955 Desoto with Florence at the window, and with that huge "Martinizing" sign in the background. This is a work of mischievous deception -- a picture that induces a perfunctory glance from somnolent viewers, and seemed to be saying "This is beyond you -- move on!" It reminded me of another classic shot through the window of a car: "Sunday Morning on Madison." Shay took this photograph from one car, looking across into another car with Florence at the window. There are two frames, the car window from where the picture was taken, and the subject window across, both at contentious angles -- and at the dead center is Florence's face with that enigmatic smile. The counteracting window frames throw us off -- from sniffing out the focal symmetry, and, we fail to see Florence being at the epicenter. What a picture -- it martinized my sensibilities!
Today we all claim to be photographers, which I call rampant voyeurism, buoyed by smart-phone technology. Clicking orgies that only amplify our futility on Facebook and other social platforms. What about the days when we had 24 or 36 shots, and we had to make every shot count? Shay hails from an era in which two to four pictures from a roll of 36 shots was considered a kill. Every Shay exhibit is school -- for those who want to learn -- but for most, it's just social lubrication. This brings me to another tutorial photograph: Florence, in a stylish outfit taking delivery of their new house in Deerfield. No picture of the house, no Bromidic real-estate agent, no children either -- just Florence, radiating in style, with the sun behind. It advertised: "Arrived and delivered!"
Which one of us can make our wives look this good? My pictures tend to add 30 pounds to my wife's breasts and buttocks -- and her illusionary curves are quite the allure. Shay manages to displace the weight off the woman he snaps, like those in that Hula-Hoop picture, from the 1960s. My friend made a point, asking if we could see a collection of woman in their 40s looking this fit and skinny -- an innuendo at our rampant obesity. When we walked out of the show, we noted the first ten women we came across -- seven were fat! There's this beautifully-lit picture of Nelson Algren with Florence and kids in their living room -- and Shay recalled Algren's three maxims, one being, "Never sleep with a woman who has more troubles than your own."
There's a picture in a fountain of color -- people holding welcoming placards for President Kennedy, from the 1960s. No caption is necessary -- captions are the faces of folks standing behind the barricades in anticipation and excitement. One thing we noticed was the evolution and progression of Florence's taste in fashion and style, which went from singularly stylish to casual luxury to functionality through the years as the kids grew up. Boy what a figure she possessed -- she wore hot silk Capri suits, before any of runway swinger could sniff it! And, how about that pool picture of Florence in her swim gear at the Hacienda, in Las Vegas? For a moment I thought she looked like a Vargas girl. Florence was sexy, but Shay was no less an illustrator.
As we dawdle through the show, two photographs grabbed my attention and held it for a long time -- the Shays in action. One was in their Sheraton hotel room, with Florence leaning against the wall in resigned elegance, and their son Harmon falling backwards to check out the bed. I cannot help but drift into that pernicious and portentous metaphor -- a parent leaning forever in resigned sorrow over a lost child. Shay's composition is pregnant with implications, consequently forceful: vertical and horizontal lines in the room are offset only by the boy's parabolic arching in the foreground -- it's disquieting. It is playful, but for Florence's expression -- aesthetic tension cannot be planned, it's stalked, like Shay does so masterfully.
Shay's work is almost clairvoyant. This picture is where Florence and kids enter a room, and Jane, a future lawyer, rushes ahead into the room, right under that Herman-Miller Nelson clock on the wall. You cannot avoid the position of the clock as the rising sun over Jane's head. Is there any lawyer who doesn't watch the clock? A prescient picture, but also a perfectly balanced combination of familial elements that render it so warm that you would crave to be in that room and be a part of that commotion. This is followed by a shot of Florence at the kitchen table, appearing tense over poor school grades of their child. Florence was an incredibly sympathetic partner -- probably never exasperated by her husband's relentless intrusion with his camera, no matter how tense the situation. This becomes even more evident as she nears her demise.
Two pictures rang in Beatles nostalgia when I saw them. First is that picture with a Northwest Airlines plane in the background, as the disembarked passengers trundle towards the exit -- the Shay family among many. We are suddenly accosted by the excitement on two faces, Jane and her brother's. I just stood there, reeling in the memories of my 1960s in India -- with my father, just like Shay, a curmudgeon in pursuit for that perfect picture. I wished for some esoteric mechanism that could teleport me into that experience of the '60s again, when possibilities seemed infinite and everything was sparse and clean. Shay is my prestidigitator for evocation!
The second picture is in a restaurant -- the Shay family at a dining booth, backlit by the afternoon sun. Your typical straightforward family picture, right? Wrong! Most restaurant shots snapped by many of us are devoid of context -- no tension apparatus, no contrast in reality or in metaphors -- they are just plain popcorn. In this picture, whether it's a deliberate device by Shay, or something purely accidental -- the newspaper in the foreground by one of their boys at the edge of the seat reads: "We'd Risk A War -- Pledges President" in the edition of the Detroit Free Press. It's a counterpoint, an insidious drift towards danger, to what seems to be a peaceful family outing. Just that little rag with the headline casts a pall of omens in what appears to be a tranquil American setting. By that headline we could not only date the outing, but the time as well.
We aged while we progressed through the exhibit, our attitude and moods changed, even our body language evolved as we moved slowly through Shay's photographic chronicle. The concluding photos were piercing -- and sobering. There are two pictures that showcase Florence in her element: books. First is the picture of Florence with two rare hardbound editions cradled in her arms, surrounded by a texture of books. Florence was not a bookseller who happened to become an intellectual; rather, she was an intellectual who chose to be a bookseller. She interacted with creative stalwarts like David Mamet, Philip Roth, Billy Corgan, Joseph Heller, Nelson Algren and her own peacock -- her husband, as well as assorted politicians and sports figures. She was the sage of the page! And, was accessible to all ordinary aspirants off the street.
The second photograph is almost paranormal -- Shay used a newly marketed wide angle lens to show Florence on both ends of the store, with a small discernible blur that represented her movement across the store. It's a baffling picture in a panoramic format, but rare in it's aesthetic power. One of the final photographs in the exhibit was Florence enjoying their deck -- it's a back-lit vignette through the door frame that appears like something you come across around an old Civil War tintype. Florence appears fuzzy through the frame, as if in the future that was long ago. Shay recounts how, on her last day at her rare books showroom Titles, she, with her Gung-Ho mien, as if going on a trip, said: "I want to take one final look around and make sure the rugs are straight -- so no one trips over them." Well, I am sure to trip at least few times more, without this biblio-sage.
My Florence is a primal scream in all of us -- it manifests and issues forth the moment that the serrating finality gets to our bones when we pathetically long for someone. Kids express it innocently and openly; adults hide behind societal protocol. But, undeniably and unequivocally, it is primordial, existing long before we became a society. This exhibit is no exploration of lofty visual metaphysics; rather, it's a celebration of a loved one, in an evocative medium, by a singularly rare contemporary craftsman. The highest and the deepest expression of our glorious vulnerability and humanism, is only through art, and Art Shay is the sure agent of it. His cathartic augury is not only a condition, but commentary on that condition as well -- abstract and real, simultaneously. My friend collapsed on a chair in silence after the last photograph. We were visibly affected at the conclusion of this journey, imbibed with this imminence of all our ends. I will close here with this sentiment: Florence, for what she was -- was our Florence too. Thank you for sharing, maestro!
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About the Author
Raju Peddada is an industrial designer running an eponymous brand, purveyor of ultra luxury furnishings of his own design (see peddada.com). He is also a freelance correspondent/writer for several publications, specializing in commentary, essay, and opinions on architecture, design, photography, books, fashion, society, and culture. Peddada was born in Tallapudi, a small southern town in south India. He's lived in New Delhi and Bombay before migrating to the West Indies and eventually settling in Chicago, Illinois, where he worked in corporate America until he chose to set up his own designing firm. He lives with his family in Des Plaines. (back)