When photographer Art Shay moved to Chicago in 1948, he left his full-time job at Life magazine and eventually bought a home in Deerfield, Illinois. Over the decades that followed, Shay shot thousands of images that captured protest movements throughout the city of Chicago over labor, housing, prison conditions and racial segregation on the city’s West and South Sides.
In “Troublemakers: Chicago Freedom Struggles through the Lens of Art Shay,” Erik Gellman curates a thoughtful selection of Shay’s images that he describes through a seamless cultural and political narrative of Chicago that covers twenty to thirty years of uprisings. Gellman sets up a compelling narrative immediately with a title that is defined by “troublemakers” who not only cause trouble, but agitate trouble in the mind and the spirit as Muddy Waters implies in the first chapter where a tender portrait of Waters with his wife Geneva is juxtaposed with his words. This definition pervades this collection where Shay troubles our ways of thinking about justice, race and corruption.
Gellman chronicles a history that furthers what Shay captured in photographs and deepens an understanding of key events and the many organizations and activists which made dissent possible from the 1940s to late 1960s. Of course, he looks at protests in Woodlawn and Deerfield, but he also documents McCarthyism, police, the first Mayor Daley and Vietnam protesters, alongside visits by Joseph McCarthy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Eleanor Roosevelt and Martin Luther King Jr. He captures interracial prayer circles outside discriminatory real estate offices, and early black gangs doing community work. There are also cameos of recognizable literary figures, such as a Shay’s longtime friend and collaborator Nelson Algren, Wobbly and poet Carlos Cortez, James Baldwin perched on a chair in a Deerfield kitchen, comedian-activist Dick Gregory, and Allen Ginsberg chanting “Ohm” with fellow protesters in Grant Park.
The gift of this book becomes evident in the final chapter when Gellman states that “Shay’s images… help separate the history from the mythology, with the former serving as a corrective but the mythmaking itself is no less important.” This separation of history and mythology is amplified even more by how timely some of these issues are today in a gentrifying Chicago where downtown is slowly expanding west and there is a growing interest in the South Side, especially in the Woodlawn and Trumbull Park, where Shay captured the neglect and development that further entrenched discriminatory housing practices. Shay also captured images of Cook County Jail and Sheridan’s Illinois Industrial School for Boys that exposed inhuman conditions and how Illinois prisons shifted to an increasingly African American population during the 1950s. His work also documented the struggles of Mexican and Puerto Rican Chicagoans at a time when the racial composition of the city was largely viewed through a black-white binary.
Erik Gellman will discuss “Troublemakers” with Bill Ayers at 57th Street Books on April 26, 2020 at 3pm.
“Troublemakers: Chicago Freedom Struggles through the Lens of Art Shay”
By Erik S. Gellman
The University of Chicago Press, 258 pages
Newcity Lit Editor Tara Betts is the author of “Break the Habit” and “Arc & Hue.” Her interviews and features have appeared in publications such as Hello Giggles, Mosaic Magazine, NYLON, The Source, Sixty Inches from Center, and Poetry magazine. She also hosts author chats at the Seminary Co-Op bookstores in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood.