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From the Vault of Art
Shay: My Guru
By Art Shay in News
on September 14, 2011 2:00 PM Art
When I became a lowly Life reporter
in 1947, I dizzily wandered the halls of the Time-Life Building above that
Rockefeller Center skating rink, above that strenuous statue of the earth
being held on Atlas's shoulders and Paul Manship's glitzy rendition of
Prometheus giving man fire.
The statues weren't the sexiest objects
sighted by a young reporter - there were the bouncy girls in their summer
frocks, letting the glory of their newly burgeoning postwar sex hang out,
smelling of Chanel No. 5 and its imitators, striding into their fifty buck
a week lives like those Soviet statues of an earlier generation, without
the baggage of earth motherhood and an 80-inch bust.
It was the best of times and the best
of times. My job as a freshman was to guard the "news" desk editors from
drop-in nuts and PR men hawking products, politicians, actresses, stunts,
all designed to capture a free page in Life worth about $50,000 in the
advertising market. Henrik Ten Eyck was sure he'd discovered the Iroquois
Rosetta stone proving that Norsemen had mated with Indians in 1200 and
given them words that were the same in Norse as they were in Iroquois.
Words like "ohye" for eye. Waiting to see me was an agent with a big-boobed
starlet in tow. She'd be starring in a TV series and was available for
"editorial parties." There was a guy from Gristedes grocery chain promising
to fry eggs on the sidewalk when it got up to 91 degrees. Paid by Perdue
eggs. There was a citrus man leading a red-headed kid, age three, who ate
lemons and eschewed ice cream cones. (That story got in!)
But the best show was the great Life
photographers and contributing geniuses like Ansel
Adams who desultorily milled around on the 31st floor where most of
the magazine happened. The day I met Adams, a big, balding outdoorsy man,
he was flummoxed by the very first electronic flash, sent by Heiland, a
Milwaukee strobe firm. "Imagine- not having to use flashbulbs!" Adams exclaimed
Bourke White, who had flashbulbed her way through WWII and told the
story of one of her No. 22 bulbs exploding as she posed Stalin -- and he
hid behind a sofa thinking someone was shooting at him: "He made me give
him the film of him cowering," she said.
There was Ralph "Rudy" Crane, a Gregory
Peck look-alike who was said to have the highest Lothario score on the
magazine: afternoons with the likes of Joan Crawford, Bette Davis and early
And just there, loading up on martinis
and canapes were two younger lady photogs whose access to famous politicians,
even a President or two, was based not so much on how they wielded their
Leica wide angle and telephotos, but on how they wriggled their asses and
teased the older guys with the sense that their fabled honey pots were
merely part of their equipage designed to get pictures "in the book." These
games traditionally worked both ways but didn't become an art or an exchange
device until JFK appeared.
I would get in trouble in Washington,
when I discovered a fuddy duddy Michigan Senator with his hot-to-trot DC
bimbo. Young Washington correspondent that I was, I told my first staff
meeting, ""What if we did a gallery of six or seven of these ladies and
their Senators?" I was laughed out of the room. Time and Life and everyone
else knew all about these liaisons, and had the phone numbers of the love
nests in case of a political emergency. There had been a press omerta against
sex revelations for years.
And I hadn't even taken up the camera
yet, or, as my new hero photog Francis Reeves Miller would say, "till yet."
I met my guru to be in Washington. A
venomous male-hating lady picture editor had said, "You'll be working with
Miller, but not for long -- he's 43 -- so we'll be getting rid of him."
I was 26 and safe for a while.
Miller was a Texan who hid shots of
rye in the little yellow film cans Kodak used to pack their film. He juggled
these cans artfully until he became bleary eyed and I had to work the cameras
for him. Francis went by the appellation "Nig" ever since he had done a
story as a UPI photographer friendly to African Americans.The name was
given him by Nasty McCormick, a legendary hater of everyone and everything.
It was Nig who taught me the art of
hiding cameras in shoe shine boxes,briefcases, cigarette lighters, in elaborate
bow ties, in holes in jackets my wife would come to hate. He taught me
the art of the stakeout, especially of Mafia types. We would work 600 mm
lenses before SI was born (one reason they chose me to shoot for them in
Chicago: I collected these telephotos or inherited them from my eventual
One day we were staking out a DC area
Mafia leader on his Maryland farm. Miller, who was given to hard-nosed
Texas philosophy, said, "Look at them Rhode Island roosters, De Mille,"
his nickname for me for arranging and directing elaborate Life pictures.
"Not a care in the world; just catching their breath between fucks. Damn!
Wouldn't that be the life!" Just then our Mafia man appeared carrying a
curved knife. He grabbed the roosters and beheaded them. Lesson learned.
"Don't waste time with fuckin'," he concluded lamely. "Let it come to you,
don't go to it."
I did some 40 stories with Nig and sometimes,
when I took up the camera, competing with him. In 1954 at West Branch,
Iowa, I was shooting President Hoover's 80th birthday celebration for Time.
Nig was shooting for Life. I sneaked into the tiny cabin in which Hoover
had been born and no doubt conceived with the family -- all 11 of them
-- cameras well hidden as Nig had taught me. I even had one in a hollowed
out Bible! There must have been 200 photogs all over the area but I was
able to get several frames before I was identified as a non-family member
and thrown out. BUT as I shot my picture of Hoover against a window I could
see, through the window, just one other photographer - Francis Reeves Miller!
He had wormed his way to the back of the building and gotten the only other
picture of Hoover visiting his birth bed! We celebrated later with Nig
doing the drinking for both of us.
Miller was the first smart Southerner
( excepting one or two wartime buddies) I had ever met. He drawled like
W.C. Fields. It was he who had gotten me a caption that got me in trouble.
On a Christmas bird count story in DC, he had photographed a young woman
who'd said to bird guru Roger Tory Peterson, "Professor, I think I've got
three tits!" "So you have," said Roger Tory with a twinkle, which I captured
in my caption. "Three tufted titmice."
Nothing became Miller's unsung career
- he was too gruff to be accorded any reputation except for getting the
picture every time he was sent out - as its beginnings. He had been a Lt.
Commander in photography in the Navy. In 1942, in Reykjavik, he got into
a drunken sidewalk brawl with an Icelandic Marine .The Marine's head hit
the curb and he died. The Navy immediately shipped Miller to Australia.
There he went from his ship to a small circus to hunt for booze- and he
met a beautiful acrobat, Vonnie, who he married and with whom he had three
children. Last I saw him working, there was his white mane on TV, racing
around the deck of a Navy ship that had just landed three astronauts.
It's been my fortune these days to have
been enlisted as a photographic guru by three pretty good photographers.
They always bring back to me memories
of Miller throwing me the left-over unused rolls he brought home from Life
assignments after I had gone out on my own, to help me get started. Hell,
TRI-X was a buck a roll in those days. His admonitions to "keep shootin'
whatever else was happenin" and to always speak well of associates who
might put in a good or bad word about you to the boss. A holdover from
his Depression-era start, I'm sure, but probably still good advice.
My surgeon "student" roams
the world, bringing back beautiful color views of natives on Fuji and rainbows
in Ireland. He must be tougher on himself when editing his fine pictures.
All three of these guys, I'm happy to say,
needed what I got from Francis Reeves Miller: the confidence of half-drunkenly
(no liquor for me, because I love the art) putting down on film something
that your eye and mind have wondered about a magic instant ago.
My LaSalle Street floor-trader shooter
is finally moving up from his iPod camera and has become such a great observer
I use one of his colorful views of an alien line of wash as a background
for my incoming calls.
My third guy, much more technically
adept than I, just found an historic Retina film camera for his Kodak collection,
and threatens to run some film through it one of these days.
Doing it as my sneakers advertise, is
the best advice any guru can give.
But I still envy Rudy Crane's telling
me after I schlepped his gear to the California location of "The Magic
Spot" how it felt to pack up his cameras in Joan Crawford's vestibule after
a shoot and have the great lady slink in wearing a nightgown, holding two
martinis and suggesting if he has a spare hour, they try the rebuilt pool
before he goes home.
Art Shay's book, Nelson
Algren's Chicago, is also available at Amazon
Sid Note: Although a search for Francis
Miller yielded very little, here is the results for Art Shay