Monday’s Photography Inspiration – Harry Callahan

“The difference between the casual impression and the intensified image is about as great as that separating the average business letter from a poem” _ Harry Callahan


Harry Morey Callahan was an American photographer, who is considered to be one of the great innovators of modern American photography. He was born in Detroit, Michigan and started photographing in 1938 as an autodidact.

Callahan discovered photography at the age of 26 and in less than a decade found ways of working, chose photographic subjects, and launched experiments that would continue for the next sixty years. His photography is exploratory rather than evolutionary. He chose a subject, photographed it for awhile, left it, did other things, and then returned to it, usually from a changed perspective. Chronology is of little importance to understanding Callahan and the Art Institute divides up the show topically, according to the three subjects that he photographed: nature, buildings, and people.

In 1938, he was working at the Chrysler Company in Detroit, Michigan, joined the Chrysler Photo Club, and learned camera basics from a friend. He soon became dissatisfied with hobby photography and the sentimental pictorialism that club members favoured. Wanting something more, he found it late in 1941 when the photographer Ansel Adams lectured at the club and—as Callahan later told it—“set me free.”

Adams told the club to view photography in its own terms not as would-be painting and within its own limitations. A photograph should be “a clean, sharp, highly detailed description of the external world within a carefully delineated, continuous tonal range,” he stated. Photographing simple things, such as nature at our feet, is just as valid as creating spectacular images, Adams added. He taught Callahan how to make prints and, above all, inspired him to become a photographic artist.

 By 1946, he was appointed by László Moholy-Nagy to teach photography at the Institute of Design in Chicago. Callahan retired in 1977, at which time he was teaching at the Rhode Island School of Design. Callahan left almost no written records–no diaries, letters, scrapbooks or teaching notes. His technical photographic method was to go out almost every morning, walk the city he lived in and take numerous pictures.

He then spent almost every afternoon making proof prints of that day’s best negatives. Yet, for all his photographic activity, Callahan, at his own estimation, produced no more than half a dozen final images a year. He photographed his wife, Eleanor, and daughter, Barbara, and the streets, scenes and buildings of cities where he lived, showing a strong sense of line and form, and light and darkness. He also worked with multiple exposures. Callahan’s work was a deeply personal response to his own life. He was well known to encourage his students to turn their cameras on their lives, and he led by example. Even as he did this he was not sentimental, romantic or emotional.

Callahan illustrated the centrality of Eleanor in his life by his continual return to her over 15 years as his prime subject — she was subject more than model — but the images are not about who she was, what she did, what she thought as an individual. Callahan’s art was a long meditation on the possibilities of photography as it might be used playfully, but not naively. Eleanor was essential to his art from 1947 to 1960. He photographed her everywhere in their home, in the city streets, in the landscape; alone, with their daughter, in black and white and in colour, nude and clothed, distant and close.

He tried every technical experiment–double and triple exposure, blurs, large camera and small. The attitude of respect and warmth permeates the endeavour.

In 1950, his daughter, Barbara, was born, and even prior to her birth she showed up in pregnancy photographs. From 1948 to 1953, Eleanor, and sometimes Barbara, were shown out in the landscape as a tiny counterpoint to large expanses of park, skyline or water. No matter how small a part of the scene they are, they still dominate the viewer’s perception. Callahan’s work is personally oriented; many of his pictures artistically interpret his family relationships. His early work experimented with representational abstraction; his later work in colour included additional subject matter, both city and landscapes as well as multiple exposures. Callahan left behind 100,000 negatives and over 10,000 proof prints.




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