Art Shay carried a camera like asthmatics carry an inhaler.
He carried one around an airfield in England during WWII and captured the hopeless moments after two U.S. bombers collided in midair and fell from the sky, killing 20 men.
He sold the picture to Look magazine.
It could have easily been him in one of those planes. Shay marveled that he survived 30 bombing flights over Germany, serving as a navigator.
He returned home and settled in Chicago, where he followed his passion and became one of the country’s most renowned photographers.
That camera didn’t survive, though. It was shot off his chest during a fighter plane attack.
Over a career that spanned seven decades Shay pointed his lens at Elizabeth Taylor, Marlon Brando, Martin Luther King, John. F. Kennedy and Ernest Hemingway — to name a few — for Life, Time, Sports Illustrated and other publications.
Shay, 96, who spent his childhood in the Bronx, the son of Eastern European immigrants who came to America with nothing, died Saturday at his home in Deerfield. The cause of death was heart failure, his family said.
He was maced outside the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968. And he flew to Memphis as soon as he heard the Rev. Martin Luther King had been killed.
He photographed Hugh Hefner surrounded by Playboy bunnies and captured images of intimidating mobsters who, on at least one occasion, grabbed his camera and and removed the film.
“But he knew it was coming so he’d put the important film in his pocket and put in film that he didn’t care if they grabbed,” said his son Richard, who’s also a photographer.
Last year, Shay received the lifetime achievement award from the Lucie Foundation at Carnegie Hall. He pulled out a harmonica on stage and hummed a little tune. “Now I can say I’ve played Carnegie Hall,” he said.
He carried his camera into the oncologist’s office with his wife Florence during her battle with cancer. She died in 2012. Shay honored her with an exhibit titled “My Florence.”
The two met at a summer camp. She was a counselor. He was a bugler.
They had five kids and kept a map in the kitchen of where dad was, charted in red crayon. It turned into a jumble of red.
He was best friends with the writer Nelson Algren, a relationship that yielded several famous photographs.
His gigs weren’t all glitz and glamour. He picked up work most anywhere he could, including gigs with Zenith, GM and Mcdonald’s.
He brought his sons on some of his shoots. McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc told Richard, a hippie at the time: get a hair cut.
In addition to photography, Shay wrote books about whatever niche subject would sell and put food on the table, Richard said.
One of the books was titled “What it’s like to be a dentist,” Richard said.
Plays, children’s books and a book about racquetball — one of his true loves — also were published.
But photography is his legacy.
And his work has seen a re-emergence in recent years at galleries, museums and in the homes of private collectors willing to pay top price.
Richard recalled his father cherishing the opportunity to speak with young people interested in his work after a recent gallery opening.
“He reveled in that. They wanted to ask him about everything. He was completely ecstatic that this new generation had found him and wanted to know all about it,” Richard said.
The Art Institute of Chicago has a portion of Shay’s work in its permanent collection.
An archivist, Erica DeGlopper, has been sorting through his photos for more than a decade and is about half done.
A documentarian from Milwaukee is currently editing a film about Shay with an eye toward the Sundance Film Festival.
A book featuring Shay’s photos of the civil rights movement is also in the works.
One of Shay’s biggest champions is Smashing Pumpkins lead singer Billy Corgan.
They met by chance.
For years, Shay’s wife ran an antique book store that Corgan frequented in Highland Park. The two became friends.
“I was really welcomed into the family and it was a real honor,” said Corgan, who regularly chatted and chewed at the couple’s home, which was littered with old photos.
“I started looking at this his stuff and was like ‘Holy s—,’ this is like a world class talent sitting under our nose here on the North Shore,” Corgan, an art collector, told the Chicago Sun-Times during a phone conversation Sunday.
“He looked at it from a reporter’s eye, he didn’t view it through the fine art lens,” said Corgan.
Corgan said Shay’s service in WWII deeply affected his view on life, and his view through the lens.
“He came away with a sense that everyone deserved a fair shot. I could see that empathy in him and his photography,” Corgan said.
Shay requested Corgan play taps on his guitar at an upcoming service where his ashes will be buried alongside the grave of his wife.
Shay is also survived by his son Steve and daughters Jane Shay Wald and Lauren Shay Lavin. A son, Harmon, went missing and was never found in Florida in 1971.