“It’s the subject matter that counts. I’m interested in revealing the subject in a new way to intensify it. A photo is able to capture a moment that people can’t always see.”
Lyric beauty and precise vision are the complementary forces that define Harry Callahan’s photography. In a career spanning over fifty years, he created a body of work in which the interior shape of his private experience finds expression in imagery of the external world. Emerging in an era dominated by the documentary, by the socially relevant work of the Farm Security Administration photographers and by the oversized photographic spreads featured in such magazines as Look and Life, Callahan’s work stood apart, as it continues to do for us today. His was a personal way, one shaped equally by dogged persistence and a commitment to experimentation.
“Callahan took the strain of experimentalism that came out of European modernism, in particular the Bauhaus,” says Sarah Greenough, curator of photography, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., and curator of the 1996 landmark Callahan exhibition, “and turned it into something distinctly American that was not concerned with experimentation for its own sake in the way Bauhaus artists were, but instead done to express his own inner state, which is a much more American approach. Photographers like Alfred Stieglitz used their photographs to express their feelings about the world. That Callahan was able to merge these two traditions into something uniquely his own is an accomplishment.”
Through September 9, The Museum of Photographic Arts (MoPA), San Diego will exhibit in “Harry Callahan: The Photographer at Work” 120 photographs and rare archival working materials by this 20th-century master photographer drawn from the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, Arizona. The exhibition traces the work of a lifetime and what Callahan called “my expression of my feelings and visual relationship to the life within and about me.” This exhibition puts his working methods on view, including negatives and contact sheets, inviting the public to see his creative process evolving.
“Callahan’s negatives will be shown alongside his most acclaimed photographs,” Curator of Photography Carol McCusker explains. “These pairings provide insight into his printing methods, such as his use of high-contrast printing to suppress extraneous detail and create maximum graphic impact in the final image. The viewer can examine a group of negatives made at the same time together with the final prints and consider Callahan’s decision-making process.”
Harry Callahan, who died in 1999, was born in Detroit in 1912, and raised in ordinary circumstances, the son of a factory worker (his father was really famous for making the best gun safe at that time) and a devoutly religious mother. A less than exceptional student, he muddled through a year and a half of college before boredom got the better of him. He left school and married Eleanor Knapp. In the depths of the Depression, while working as a clerk in the accounting department of the Chrysler Corporation, he acquired his first camera. Having admired the movie camera of a friend, he set out to buy one. Finding the equipment too expensive he “settled” for the Rollieicord.
What began at the age of twenty-six as a pleasurable hobby shortly thereafter became an addiction. Callahan had been raised a devout Christian as a young man before turning away from his faith. He would later note, talking about photography, that an agnostic friend “talked me out of religion, and I wanted something to fill that space.”
Three years later, he experienced an epiphany that would mark his beginnings as a photographer. Ansel Adams visited the Detroit Photo Guild, Callahan’s camera club, to show some of his prints and to conduct a series of lectures for several days. “Ansel,” Callahan has said, “is what freed me.” While the details of what was said have faded, Callahan remembers a five-print series, “Surf Sequence,” whose clean elegance and serial nature resonated for him. With his friend, Todd Webb, an inspired Callahan devoted his weekends to photography. Together he and Webb traveled West to shoot Adams’ landscape, and to New York to meet Alfred Stieglitz at his gallery, An American Place.
From 1941 to 1943 all of his major subjects and techniques were explored: nature, the city, Eleanor, multiple exposures, high-contrast printing and color. John Szarkowski, Director Emeritus of the Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art, has written of this period: “Callahan’s pictures of the Forties were unlike any earlier photographs. They were simultaneously mechanical in character–unmistakably the product of a technological process–and uncompromisingly aesthetic in their motive; they were full of grace, antiseptically clean, cold as ice, and free of human sentiment–as distant and elegant as a Shaker chair or archaic Venus. Yet in spite of all this perfection the pictures were not sterile but full of force; they were machines that worked.”
Callahan found work in the darkroom of the General Motors Photography Department in the last years of World War II, and continued to photograph on the weekends. After the war, using his savings, he financed a four-month long “fellowship” in New York. During his time in the city he met Beaumont and Nancy Newhall, who included his work in the 1946 Museum of Modern Art exhibition “New Photographers.” That same year Arthur Siegel, a commercial photographer, photojournalist, and teacher living in Detroit who knew Callahan from the Detroit Photo Guild recommended to Laszlo Moholy-Nagy that Callahan join the faculty of Chicago’s Institute of Design.
Founded in 1937 as the new Bauhaus, the school of art and industrial design was patterned on the original Bauhaus, where Moholy-Nagy had taught in the 1920s. He, along with other instructors, had immigrated to the United States after Hitler’s rise to power forced the school’s closure. The Bauhaus philosophy stressed connections between art and society, and the need for artists to be in touch with the inherent characteristics of their materials.
Callahan’s approach, with its emphasis on experimentation, was perfectly suited to that of the Institute. At his interview Moholy-Nagy asked Callahan about his teaching methods. Coached by Siegel, Callahan replied that “when they [the students] see my own work, I think they will understand what I mean.” Unmoved by Callahan’s answer, Moholy-Nagy informed him that he never showed students his work. Callahan was hired. “I guess he [Moholy] knew I was a simple, deeply involved guy,” Callahan later recalled.
Teaching, however, was hard given Callahan’s non-verbal bent, and his initial discomfort about his lack of credentials. But it provided the creative break he needed. He was thrust into an environment where art was an accepted way of living one’s life, where his friends soon included such artists as architect Mies van der Rohe and painter Hugo Weber.
As his work evolved, Callahan explored a variety of themes, photographing Eleanor and their daughter Barbara; the constantly shifting theater of the street; and buildings, the expressive exoskeleton of the city itself. “Callahan would focus as long as two months or as little as two weeks at a time on a particular subject,” explains McCusker. “He frequently talks about his exploration of a certain subject running dry. He would change techniques, experiment with multiple exposures, collage, or extreme contrast, or switch subjects altogether. He was methodically working out all the possibilities of a given motif.”
The dramatic images he made in 1950, on Chicago’s State Street, of people’s heads shot in raking light, for example, were all made within a short period of time, at most a few months. His experiments with those images come out again in other subjects. The architecture shot during the same time becomes less impersonal. He was interested to show the reflection of man within the urban environment and how it was being altered to express his individuality. That same concern with individuality was seen on the street in his focus on the minute details of hair and makeup.
Of those images shot on the street Callahan said, “First I shot recognizable action, people talking to each other, laughing together. This had a literal value which has never been satisfying to me.” He later realized he wanted to show people not with any obvious expression, but lost in thought, much in the way Walker Evans captured people with their guard down in the “Subway” series. Callahan went further, isolating the individual face from the context of the place. The problem in executing his idea was not only one of concept but of craft. He coupled experiments with focus, film exposure and over development with intuitive and instantaneous decisions about when to shoot. He made among hundreds of exposures several score of successful images.
The methods for teaching studio photography which Callahan developed with Aaron Siskind at the Chicago Institute of Design and later at the Rhode Island School of Design filtered to many American universities, first through Callahan’s own students, many of whom are still working, and subsequently through their students. There were courses in the technique and practice of photography, in learning how to physically make photographs, in studying how light manipulates objects. And there were the basic assignments: how to shoot architecture, people on the street, how to do advertising.
As Callahan had once explained to Moholy-Nagy, he taught best through the example of his own work. In his teaching, he conveyed his persistence, his ability to learn through action and experiment, and his discovery of the new in very familiar things. John McWilliams, a student of Callahan’s in the mid-1960s, recalls his studies: “The two most important things Harry did for me [were] to make me aware of the importance of the process and to create an environment in which to grow. I remember late one night Harry gave us insight into this process. Before this, my experience with Harry, the photographer, was through finished prints already on the wall … “We had all shown our work. After much talk, Harry took out a large stack of 5X7 proofs of city shots he had recently taken. We all sifted through the stack of hundreds and saw good pictures, bad pictures, dumb pictures, and pictures that seemed to have a life of their own. I saw confusion, indecision, and recognition. I saw the process of ideas evolving through the act of photographing. I saw that the photograph was not easily come by, even by someone of Callahan’s stature. It was not so much different from my struggles. I saw the need to photograph, to be out looking, to cycle my ideas and experiences through photography. I saw that if one persevered, ideas would evolve through discoveries or so-called mistakes. Rather than lecturing as to the need for discipline, Callahan simply showed us the means to an end.”
Callahan first did color work in 1942 after acquiring a 35mm camera. Kodachrome slide film, introduced in 1936, had become popular with the public despite its low speed, but it was shunned by most creative photographers. Beyond what was perceived as its garish qualities, there was the problem of presentation. Simple processes produced prints with unremarkable results and questionable life; the more durable and chromatically saturated dye transfer process was prohibitively expensive. After two decades of color experimentation and little critical acceptance Callahan abandoned the medium.
In the late 1970s, prompted by new advances in color print production with “type-C” prints from color negatives, and increased earnings from his existing black-and-white prints in the 1970s photography boom, Callahan began to work exclusively in color. He has often stated that his interest in color was stimulated by its pervasive presence in the media. Color also offered the opportunity to see familiar subjects anew. Streets photographed through the years in black-and-white took on a new liveliness. Color asserted itself as his new subject, with chromatic relationships becoming as important as graphic elements.
This creative move coincided with Callahan’s retirement from teaching. Throughout images made in Morocco, Mexico, Portugal, and his home of Atlanta where he lived after 1983 the pulse of his earlier black-and-white work can be felt: the rhythm of the street and the self-absorption of people, the expressive potential of the architectural facade, the simple spare compositions and the omniscient eye of the wide-angle lens are all there. In Callahan’s photographs, even the most exotic of locales retains a sense of the familiar, the ordinary. The photographs portray, as Callahan always has through the common denominator of simple human existence, a monumental sense of the real.
Judith Bell Turner-Yamamoto is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Virginia.