My Florence is a very personal story of Florence Shay, a “companionable, sexy, Jewish mother, elegant and always up to date, who blogged to 30,000 followers until her last days, the literary adviser to basketball players, governors, and rock stars, the loving, devoted wife; and resolute proponent of the written word.” What makes the book unique is that Shay is an ordinary wife living an ordinary life around California and Chicago, 1940s to 2012. Her husband Art, whose resume includes a stint as Life magazine’s youngest bureau chief and a career as a highly respected photojournalist, tells her story in images. Photographs of a life well-lived up until her death in 2012.
At a slim 96 pages, I often wished for even more photographs than were presented. It is clear throughout what made photographer Art Shay an icon at Life Magazine – his images are the every day, the mundane, the everyday life. For photographers and photojournalists know, it is not about what’s in the image, it’s about the apogee of the moment at which the photographer clicks the shutter. Here, Shay beautifully captured the moments in wife Eleanor’s life – her family, her pursuits, the memories they were making as they raised 5 children and then went on to grandchildren. The cover image is the first he ever photographed of the person who would be his life’s companion.
Cultural historians will no doubt appreciate the glimpses of mid century life in Chicago. From a brick row type home in Des Plaines, whose interior features ball clocks and slim legged tables. But also tidbits of life after World War II through to the turbulent 1970s. The images move from black and white to kodachrome color as Eleanor ages. Celebrity appearances in images by Eleanor Roosevelt, Studs Terkel, and Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins seem almost to disrupt the home glimpses – I kept wishing for even more glimpses of the ordinary life rather than the celebrity one.
The Shays’ may have lived a better life than many due to his work with Life (vacations in Hawaii in the 1970s, the Hacienda in Las Vegas in the 1960s) to have this be a book of the populist style. As well, there are interesting tidbits of the eras – images of briefcase and purse hidden cameras when Elanor caught pictures of mobsters, for example. Or staged images of his family for Life articles. They create a bigger pictures of the Shays’ life but I found them less interesting than the candid home images.
I rate this four out of five stars because I honestly wanted more. There is some commentary but it is sparse and not every picture has commentary. Since a photojournalist is all about the moment, I loved the book the most when it was describing those moments and what prompted Shay to click the shutter when he did. There just wasn’t enough of it.
The images are somewhat chronological but do jump around quite a bit. Decades may pass in the blink of an eye, for example, and no matter how many images presented, it did feel like there are so many more that will never be seen that could have gone into this book.
In all, a very personal story in which the life of a remarkable woman shines through brightly.
Reviewed from an ARC.