Thursday, September 27th, 2012
Harry Callahan (1912-1999) was an American master photographer influenced into taking his work seriously as an artistic practice by an encounter with Ansel Adams. From that point forward, having no formal arts training, he became aware from Ansel Adams’ less known photographs that the small pieces of life can make beautiful photographs in their own right. Callahan’s work evolved over half a century as subjects were taken on board and left behind – nature, the city, then people and a five year series of photographs of his wife Eleanor. In many photographs the person is a diminutive figure barely impacting on the scene; in others, expressive faces show deep contemplation. He often went back to earlier subjects years later and dropped subjects for years at a time. Callahan was also an early photographer of colour, although it would be three and a half decades before they were exhibited.
Turning the pages of Harry Callahan: Photographer at Work is to see a slice of the lifelong work ethic that was Harry Callahan the man. Grasses, trees, portraits and exploration and experimentation across an entire professional career spanning from the young man to the older man.
In 1981 Harry Callahan told Barbaralee Diamonstein on her Visions and Images television series “I could never do the technical things. I’m not technical at all.” Yet in the early 1940s László Moholy-Nagy got Callahan a position at the Institute of Design in Chicago where Callahan became head of the photography department. He later worked as a professor at the Rhode Island School of Design. That is the enigma of Callahan. He was an obsessive photographer who believed creativity could not be taught and confessed to lacking technical ability; and yet the man spent a career teaching photography and was widely recognised as a master of photography. He left an exemplary account of himself across film formats from 8 x 10 down to 35mm. He would work on a subject or in a medium until he felt stifled then break out into the perpetual next thing, rather than go stale.
The foreward to this beautifully made book is by John Szarkowski and covers a large amount of information about Harry Callahan’s photographic life. If you do get hold of a copy then I’d highly recommend reading it closely and in brief portions. I have to admit that I wasn’t really that much of a Callahan appreciator until I read it, too. It’s easy to look at the sticks and ordinary things that make many of his subjects and to draw conclusions about their value. When their value lays within the context of the man’s life-work as a serious photographer who made pictures almost every day and processed film and printed daily.
In a very true sense Harry Callahan was a very ordinary man who left a photographic legacy that is quite extraordinary.