(13/55) Harry Callahan - photographer

Harry and Eleanor Callahan (1996)
photograph copyright Lewis Kostiner

 This article is different to other articles I've recently written on the life & work of master photographers. These words have a much more personal tone and meaning. For Harry Callahan's work, and the example of his work (which are I feel are two different but mutually compatible aspects of his legacy) have been in my life as a photographer for over 30 years. That's a long time.

Long enough for the temptation for mimicry or even simple copying to have been replaced by altogether different perspectives on his work. And for my own personal voice to have developed as I've continued to photograph. A voice informed by the work & experiences of a few notable photographers - including
as I've mentioned, Harry Callahan.

One of my hopes with this series of articles on photographers is to illuminate a range of different ways of working in photography.

And although most of the people I'm featuring work in the area of art or art/documentary photography hybrids, as this is my own area of expertise, my aim ultimately is to show how photography can illuminate our way of seeing. Of making sense of our lives & the world around us by the exploratory use of a still camera.

For me, Harry Callahan is the very best example of a life in photography - where both his personal life & 'professional' photographic life were in often perfect alignment during a long & very productive career. 

Harry Morey Callahan (October 1912 – March, 1999) was born in Detroit, Michigan. He worked for the car company Chrysler as a young man, leaving the company to study engineering at Michigan State University. For whatever reason these things happen in life, he dropped out of College and a potential professional career in engineering and returned to Chrysler. At the company, he joined its camera club, which lead to him teaching himself photography in 1938.

A talk given by Ansel Adams in 1941 inspired him to see the practise of photography in a new light and take his work seriously. But unlike many other young photographers seeing Adams work for the same time, Callahan chose not to graft the practise & manner of the older mans Adams work into his own photography.

Given Callahan's self-education in photography, it's surprising to learn that in 1946 (just 8 years after first teaching himself photography) he was invited to teach photography at the Institute of Design in Chicago by noted photographer László Moholy-Nagy.

It's clear from Callahan's early experiments in photography, why the equally gifted innovator Moholoy-Nagy would have appreciated his work. Working without a definable 'subject' his experiments with line were (and remain) hugely influential, representing a sea change in photographic exploration of the natural and man made world.

Remember this is the same man who was influenced by Ansel Adams (2 years earlier than the first image below) to become a photographer. Adams work virtually defined a sensual multi-toned, three dimensional, deep focus approach to photographic form. It's fairly evident that no trace of that influence can be detected in any of the images directly below.

They are radical. More like drawing perhaps than photography, certainly in the 1st image created by camera movement. It's a radical simplification of surface and light. 

The 3rd image,  photographed under an overcast sky and printed to lessen the visual appearance of shadows or tonal contrasts, if indeed any existed on the original negative, shows pattern, line and random natural beauty. 

It's a world away from the heroic photographs of nature made by Adams. But like Adams work, it presents a photographers personal 'expression' of nature. Albeit using a radically redefined sense of pictorial space.

The photographs of telephone wires he made in the mid 1940's show a similar engagement with more everyday mundane subject matter. But like other photographs he made during this period show his acute and unusual sensitivity to line & shape.
Predating the exploration of similar themes by abstract expressionist painters (like Franz Kline for example), it's important to note that Harry Callahan was among the first to see the potential for photography to explore and redefine 2 dimensional space in photographs using both camera and darkroom.

Camera movement on flashlight (1946/47) copyright Harry Callahan/respective copyright holders

  (unknown date) copyright Harry Callahan/respective copyright holders

Ivy Tentacles on Glass (1952copyright Harry Callahan/respective copyright holders

 Telephone wires (1945?) copyright Harry Callahan/respective copyright holders

One of Callahan's signature images Chicago (1950) shows his understanding of this exploratory approach to line and contrast. The thick slabs of black tree trunks, the near white snow and the elegant fine tracery of the branches against a wintery sky - all combine to produce a masterly image of photographic understatement using the tools of photography to produce an image that's simple but also undeniably personal. 

Chicago (1950) copyright Harry Callahan/respective copyright holders

Compare it with an image made by Ansel Adams 17 years earlier (below.)
Photographed in bright sunlight, the tones in the snow and the dark sky reproduce a version in print of what Adams saw. Technically it does a good job of accurately reproducing photographically, a wide variation in light levels. The framing is clear and juxtaposes the tree against the wide expanses of mountain range and landscape in which it is set.

(Ansel Adams) copyright Ansel Adams /respective copyright holders
Half dome, Apple Orchard, Yosemite trees with snow on branches (1933)

But my question is this. Is Adams picture mysterious? Is it 'elegant'? Are there deliberate forces at work in the image that help illuminate more than what you see at first glance?

The differences between the 2 photographers help uncover the problem many viewers have with interpreting what they see in photographs of the natural and man made world.

For example, is creative photography solely about reproducing reality? Is it about interpretation? Is it about both? And if it is both, does a 'personal' approach to photography in any way undermine the 'reality' of what is being photographed.

Is Adams photograph of snow and trees more 'real'? Is it 'better'? More photographic? Or does Callahan's image 'feel' more true, more personal and so more like 'art'?

Personally, while I admire the way Ansel Adams used his photography to champion environmental protection of the American landscape, I find his images 'monochromatic' in the emotional sense. Somewhat flat and pedestrian and lacking in the fire & innovation that characterises the work of the very best photographers I admire. Some of which I've already written about here.

Callahan in contrast, perhaps because he was self taught, seems to have accepted no particular 'approach' to photography. And exercised no caution with regards to experimentation.That's a rare talent. 

Harry Callahan's photography constantly probes what's possible in terms of light, pattern, shape and line. And about realism and personal expression.

In the days of film only photography (not that long ago!) if you were starting out in photography and being 'taught' what was possible with the new tools of camera & film that were at your disposal, you might very well have been shown how to create double exposures on film, by re-exposing an image onto a frame of film that already contained an image.

A technique that's more difficult to control using 35mm cameras & film than larger format cameras. But that's what it is. It's a technique. A 'trick'. Something that once shown, most photographers rarely use again in practice.
Perhaps because the technique tends to draw attention to itself. But again, this particular technique is is something that Callahan, being self-taught, had no preconceived notions against using. And was in fact one of those rare artists, who was able to transcend technique and style to create unique statements on film.

Take the image below, Chicago (1948.) A city, captured in shards of sunlight. Dark spaces. Bright spaces. Fragmented. With pedestrians illuminated in bursts of light. It's difficult to pinpoint how to sum up what is being shown. Realistic? Hallucinatory? Visionary? Expressionist?

Chicago (1948) copyright Harry Callahan/respective copyright holders

And this image. Also simply called Chicago (1948.) Window frames. Flat. Tilted. Dark and light. Patterns. Shapes. But also lines. Simple decoration or something more? Perhaps an exploration of illusion & space on a 2D surface? Or a symbolic statement about empty emotional spaces within an urban environment? Or 'just' pattern?

Chicago (1948) copyright Harry Callahan/respective copyright holders

Taking the idea of fragmented images further, nearly 10 years later, Callahan experimented with a further fragmentation of pictorial space. In fact, what he was doing was mirroring what Jackson Pollock and others were doing in painting at about the same time. Which was doing way with the idea of presenting a single recognizable image and instead making new images which were about showing no-representational passages of movement and the exploration and articulation of shapes and lines, incorporating gesture.

In photography, which concerns itself mostly with representing things and places and events, it's an incredibly bold idea to try and make in a sense 'non-photography' about such random, abstract ideas. You can of course still see what some of these individual photographs are of. The second image, for example contains many photographs of faces. But it just doesn't seem important. The scale of these images, the relative unimportance of what familiar elements you can make out just doesn't seem to register. What you're looking are no longer photographs in the conventional sense. They're something else.
Collage, Chicago (1957) copyright Harry Callahan/respective copyright holders
Collages (ca. 1956) copyright Harry Callahan/respective copyright holders

But Callahan wasn't just making experimenting with the use of abstraction within a darkroom, he was also using his camera to simplify the forms he saw around him in the urban environment. Something he would continue to do throughout his career.

Chicago (1949) copyright Harry Callahan/respective copyright holders

Highland Park, Michigan (1941/1942) copyright Harry Callahan/respective copyright holders

Harry Callahan met his future wife—Eleanor Knupp, on a blind date in 1933, and married 3 years later. In 1950 their daughter Barbara (also photographed extensively by Harry Callahan) was born.

So why I am mentioning this?

Eleanor Callahan was to be a major force in his life and also a major theme in his work. One of photography's least acknowledged creative forces. In conventional art lingo, Eleanor would be described simply as Harry Callahan's muse. Also here and here.

A somewhat chauvinist, patronising term in terms of art history and certainly inappropriate and unrevealing in Eleanor's case. Eleanor was a wife, working mother and companion to Harry, outliving him after his death by over 10 years.
Her role cannot be underestimated in terms of his achievements in photography. And although she did serve as a model for substantial bodies of his work, it's her support for the working artist that is most notable. (Note: From Ray & Mary Moore to Edward Weston & Flora Weston/Margrethe Mather/Tina Modotti/Sonya Noskowiak etc , Alfred Stieglitz & Georgia O'Keefe to Hilla &Bernd Becher, partners have been a notable (though largely unrecognised) feature through photography's long history.)

He photographed his wife and daughter at home and on the streets & open areas of the cities where he lived,. Even prior to the birth his daughter showed up in photographs of Eleanor's pregnancy. 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.

Controversially he also chose to photograph parts of Eleanor's naked body including her pubis, which he double exposed against images of nature. Perhaps attempting to draw intimate parallels between the human form and natural forms. Or explore deeper primal attachments between woman & the earth (as for example exemplified in many ancient mythologies.) However, as shown below he also used her body as the starting point to create more mysterious and elliptical imagery. The recent book of photographs featuring his wife contain many hitherto unseen images.

4 of these images are shown directly below.
Detroit (1942) copyright Harry Callahan/respective copyright holders

Chicago (1953) copyright Harry Callahan/respective copyright holders

Chicago (1953) copyright Harry Callahan/respective copyright holders

Chicago (1955) copyright Harry Callahan/respective copyright holders

The image (above) in particular is quite striking. Combining the experimentation of the photographs taken nearly 7 years earlier with a more formal restraint that manages to stop short of being just decorative.

The 2 images below are also fascinating and pre-date a current post-modern trend in photography.
Photographs which exhibit this trend are often taking using a square frame, have a photographer standing back, very far back from a central point of interest in a picture to show the wider context in which the (often) nominal subject matter exists.
So often, this use of 'deep' context is a formal exercise in which impersonal and mundane subject matter becomes transformed (if that's the word) into just 'ordinary' or very plain photography.

But Callahan's use of such 'deep' perspective is used with precision.
Take the image below, apart from the 2 subjects (his wife Eleanor & daughter Barbara)  there's only one other person in the sea. And he's just about to exit the frame.
The sea is calm. The sky overcast. You can see Ealeanor's outline because she's wearing a dark swimsuit. Both herself and Barbara are positioned near the centre of the frame. But not exactly in the centre.
Eleanor & Barbara, Lake Michigan (1953) copyright Harry Callahan/respective copyright holders

A similar image of wide open landscape is shown in the image below. Barbara & Eleanor are shown in a park with the skyscrapers of Chicago behind them. It could easily be a family snap in the hands of someone else. But it isn't.

There are for example some striking cloud shapes in the sky above them. Eleanor is holding the young Barbara. There's something extra in the photograph. A combination of all that I've described perhaps - that helps lift this image above the mundane.

Eleanor & Barbara, Chicago (1953) copyright Harry Callahan/respective copyright holders

Eleanor, Chicago (1951) copyright Harry Callahan/respective copyright holders

Maine (1963) copyright Harry Callahan/respective copyright holders

As I've written about previously, Harry Callahan was a prolific and quite unusual photographer known for his bold experiments. But rarely is he acknowledged as a prolific and often visionary street photography.

For some years, but particularly in the early 1950's, Callahan took a remarkable series of images of pedestrians/shoppers etc on the streets where he was living, both in black & white but also in colour.

The images taken in Chicago are quite unlike any other kind of portraiture being made then & now. For these close-up images show a human space at once immediate & visual but also an interior and psychological world just hinted at in the glances and furrowed brows of these solitary walkers.

Callahan's great skill was in creating and providing an isolated space in which these 'actors' could exist & perform.

Evidently a shy man, Callahan took these photographs using a telephoto lens pre-focused for a specific distance so that when his subjects (all women) entered the field of view he was able to photograph quickly & unobtrusively without incident.
One look at the contact sheet below, shows just how successful he was at using this particular technique. 

Contact strips, Chicago (1950) copyright Harry Callahan/respective copyright holders

Chicago portraits (1950-1951) copyright Harry Callahan/respective copyright holders
Chicago (1950) copyright Harry Callahan/respective copyright holders
Chicago (1950) copyright Harry Callahan/respective copyright holders
Chicago (1950) copyright Harry Callahan/respective copyright holders
Chicago (1950) copyright Harry Callahan/respective copyright holders

 (unknown date) copyright Harry Callahan/respective copyright holders

 (unknown date) copyright Harry Callahan/respective copyright holders

 Providence (1963) copyright Harry Callahan/respective copyright holders
Chicago (1961) copyright Harry Callahan/respective copyright holders

He also used his street photographs as the starting point for double exposures, in which the faces of anxious shoppers were juxtaposed against street scenes or placed against each other. He also used images from TV screens against street scenes.

These images are less successful (for me) but do highlight again, his restlessness with repeating himself in his work. As if any 'success' with a series of photographs brought with it the 'danger' of establishing a formulaic approach to subject matter and approach.

Chicago (1955) copyright Harry Callahan/respective copyright holders

Providence (1966) copyright Harry Callahan/respective copyright holders

Harry Callahan, as I've repeated a number of times in this essay, was an unusual photographer in many respects. Unusual in the way he constantly experimented and challenged himself, using a variety of different camera formats and techniques. Unusual in the way he used relatively modest subject matter around him as the basis for his work.

Also important to note is that in addition to regularly photographing almost every day, he also had a substantial career as a photography teacher.
As well as teaching at the Institute of Design in Chicago in the 1940's, he also then taught at the Rhode Island School of Design from 1961, establishing a photography program and teaching there until his retirement in 1977.

Many of us struggle to keep photographing amidst the many demands of life - with partners, children, financial issues, family issues - and a million and other problems we constantly face, as we struggle to keep photographing in what is often small slivers of 'spare' time.

It's quite a remarkable achievement for Harry Callahan to have continued to produce the work he did, given the other demands on his time. But as I mentioned earlier, I suspect Eleanor Callahan was integral to him being able to have 'free' time.

From the 1970's to the 1990's, spanning a period when Callahan was in his 60's to his 80's, he continued to experiment and innovate in a manner which many photographers of his age (and reputation), would be unable or unwilling to emulate, perhaps playing 'safe' with established reputations  and saleable iconic images made in their past?
Cape Cod (1972) copyright Harry Callahan/respective copyright holders
Cape Cod (1972) copyright Harry Callahan/respective copyright holders

Take these images of architecture. Beginning with delineation's of line & pattern in New York, to more unusual black & white/colour explorations of buildings in Providence, he's varying the way he uses the camera to explore depth and space.

He's also using a large format camera in a very unusual & distinctive way. As I mentioned earlier, perhaps because he was initially self-taught, Callahan never seemed to have developed a right or wrong way to use a camera or piece of film.

Many photographers using a large format camera to photograph architecture would correct for the appearance of elevated sides in a building (so called 'converging verticals') levelling the back of the camera and elevating the lens to adjust the camera image & create the appearance of  'normal' perspective.

He's deliberately enhanced the features of the vernacular architecture he's photographing to create something very different and new. 

The image (below) Acme Sign Shop, Providence, (1977) is a good example of just how very different (and extreme?) Callahan's photographic vision of architecture had become.

New York (1974) copyright Harry Callahan/respective copyright holders 
Providence (1977) copyright Harry Callahan/respective copyright holders
Providence (1976) copyright Harry Callahan/respective copyright holders

Acme Sign Shop, Providence, (1977) copyright Harry Callahan/respective copyright holders

Similarly colour photographs taken in Ireland and Morocco, show his careful and playful exploration of not only colour but form too.

The photograph (below) is a good example of how simply choosing the right place to stand reveals a disorienting, disquieting world not otherwise seen - within a relatively mundane street scene. 

Ireland, (1979copyright Harry Callahan/respective copyright holders

Morocco (1981) copyright Harry Callahan/respective copyright holders

Atlanta (1984) copyright Harry Callahan/respective copyright holders
Providence (1994) copyright Harry Callahan/respective copyright holders
Providence (1994) copyright Harry Callahan/respective copyright holders

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 this activity, Callahan, at his own estimation, produced no more than half a dozen 'final' images a year.

However, as with Garry Winogrand, another prolific photographer, his archives continue to reveal the extent to which his own judgements about quality can be seen within the wider context of much larger bodies of work.

Postscript: Eleanor Callahan died on February 28, 2012 in a hospice in Atlanta at the age of 95.


The video interview below is one of the only surviving records in which Harry Callahan talks about his work and life at length.

The interviewer was Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel.

copyright: Diamonstein-Spielvogel Video Archive in the Duke University Libraries
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