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Famed Photographer Art Shay's Show Captures His True Love

By Mark Konkol | February 13, 2014 7:30am

Flowers wilt. Candy makes you fat. And sappy poems printed on heart-shaped cards remain the hallmark, so to speak, of romantic lies we tell out of obligation to our sweethearts.

Valentine's Day, with all its tokens of courtly love, presents only a faint illusion of manufactured affection.

But If you want to see what true love really looks like, I suggest you take a gander at the latest exhibit of Chicago's foremost photographer, Art Shay.

"My Florence" is a collection of nearly 70 photos of his 70-year love affair with the love of his life, starting with the very first photo he took of her at a summer camp in 1942.

Florence edited the camp newspaper. Art was the camp bugler. They hit it off right away.

"From the moment we met we knew we liked each other," Art said. "We were two smart kids. I was from the Bronx and she was from Brooklyn … and we ended up with five children and a 67-year marriage."

Shay, 91, has had more gallery shows than he can count. His pictures of celebrities and regular folks have graced more than 1,000 magazine covers — Life, Time and Sports Illustrated, to name just a few.

And he's published nearly 70 photo books, including my favorite, "Nelsen Algren's Chicago."

But this tribute to his beloved late wife, an exhibit presented by the Museum of Contemporary Art and Columbia College Chicago Library at 624 S. Michigan, tells the story of a love — and a marriage — that endures.

"We had a wonderful relationship and loved each other very much," Shay said.

And he captured exactly how he loved her with his camera lens in candid moments of their life together.

"I captured the life of a fascinating and very beautiful human being," Shay said. "She was always a beauty even though she never believed it. My pictures show that, and they show what a great woman and mother she was, and how she related to her kids, and how we passed on some of our smarts to them." 

They married in 1944 — two years after they met at camp — while Art was on leave from the Army following his first taste of World War II as combat navigator in the 703rd Squadron, which happened to be led by Academy Award-winning actor Jimmy Stewart.

After their wedding, Shay returned to war and went on 52 bombing missions. When he finally returned home to his young wife in New York, Shay scored a job writing for Life magazine.

They moved to San Francisco, where a 25-year-old Shay became Life's youngest bureau chief, and finally they moved to Chicago, a city Florence loved, and never left it. It was quite a journey.

"Love is respect to the other person who you share everything. You share your knowledge. You share your kids, your ambitions, your dreams and very often your friends," Shay said. "And we were very lucky to have a very large group of friends."

Algren, the close pal Shay documented during the author's heyday in Chicago, makes cameo appearances in Shay's tribute exhibit to Florence.

So does Billy Corgan of The Smashing Pumpkins, who was close friends with Florence Shay, who ran Titles Inc., the famous rare books shop in suburban Highland Park.

"She was his resident Jewish mother," Shay said. "She guided his reading of poetry and literature and he became one of the collectors of my pictures, which are embarrassingly expensive now."

Unlike some of Shay's more famous photos — portraits of JFK, MLK and Marlon Brando —  "My Florence" shows the intimate way the photographer and his children loved Florence, who died at age 90 in 2012.

Their long love story, Shay said, can't be boiled down to a moment or a feeling. They lived for each other and their kids.

I asked him how he got so lucky.

"I don't think luck had as much to do with it as hard work. And it doesn't seem like work. It's ordinary life. One thing after another," Shay said. "I never set myself as an example to other people and neither did my wife, but we did end up as a pretty good example of what love is."

When Art and Florence met and fell in love in 1942, they may not have set out to show the world the meaning of love that you'll never find on a heart-shaped greeting card, but they did.

And thankfully, Art always carried his camera with him.