||Harry Callahan: the Photographer
comments on the exhibition,
and personal anecdotes,
at the Art Institute of Chicago
Victor M. Cassidy
“The difference between the casual impression and the intensified
image is about as great as that separating the average business letter
from a poem,” said Harry Callahan in 1964. “If you
choose your subject selectively — intuitively — the camera
can write poetry.”
How Callahan made the camera write poetry is the subject of Harry
Callahan: The Photographer at Work, an exhibition of roughly
120 prints and archival materials, which is up at the Art Institute of
Chicago until September 24. Presenting much that is new, the show sheds
light on the artist’s methods and personal history.
Unremarkable as a young man, 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
Callahan’s 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.
Callahan never completed college or studied photography in the classroom.
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 favored. 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
In 1946, Callahan began teaching photography at Chicago’s Institute
of Design (ID), which was then directed by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, the Hungarian
Modernist photographer and painter. Moholy, who encouraged formal experimentation,
became Callahan’s second great mentor. Basically, Callahan merged
Adams’ purism with Moholy’s experimentalism to create a new,
radically inventive kind of photography. He would choose a subject, such
as nature or city street life, photograph it in a variety of ways, and
then experiment with extreme contrast, double exposure, all-white and
all-black prints, and much else. His images are cool, often tough, and
he never presses a personal agenda upon the viewer.
The Art Institute exhibition shows how this worked out in practice. In
1948, for example, Callahan photographed plants in snow, responding to
Adams’ demand for “something real.” Unhappy with his
perfectly honorable print, he put it aside for a time, and then, in rebellion,
printed the negative at high contrast to get a fresh image that hovers
between figuration and abstraction. He devised similar strategies to photograph
patterns in nature, such as light on waves, and even did time exposures
with a moving flashlight in darkness, following Moholy’s example.
Not all experiments succeed and this was true for Callahan. One of his
most famous sequences shows faces of women pedestrians in downtown Chicago.
Callahan, who spent as much time as he could out of doors with camera
in hand, decided to photograph women, failed several times to get anything
satisfactory, and finally realized that he wanted to show women lost in
thought as they walked along. The Art Institute exhibition includes a
proof sheet with numerous, very uneven images of heads from which Callahan
selected the best. He never cropped images in the darkroom and the fact
that many heads are partly cut off at the edges—or shot at odd angles—suggests
that he followed his intuition, experimenting constantly as he worked.
It’s impossible to imagine Callahan without Eleanor, his wife. He
photographed her repeatedly, indoors and out, nude and clothed, over about
15 years. These images, whose true subject is married love, rank among
the most moving photographs ever made.
Seen outdoors, Eleanor is a small figure in a large empty landscape, either
alone or with the Callahans’ daughter. She never smiles or postures,
but is just there and he records her without comment. The nudes are intimate
without being sexual. Callahan always respects Eleanor’s privacy.
She is completely trusting, perfectly self-confident, and at peace. There
is no way that such images could be made without a strong, enduring bond
between photographer and subject.
Callahan did some of his most ingenious experimentation with the images
of Eleanor. The Art Institute show includes proof sheets of nudes with
geometric patterns double exposed upon them. In another nude, Eleanor’s
body is seen at a distance in a field of black. The exhibition includes
his negative, which shows that she was posing in their large, sparsely
furnished apartment—and that he printed the image in high contrast.
This is the first major exhibition to come from the Callahan archive at
the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona in Tucson.
We hope for more such exhibitions, equally beautiful and absorbing, in
years to come.
Anecdotes: Callahan the Man
Irene Siegel, the painter and photographer, shared her memories of Callahan
with us. Siegel met Callahan in 1954, when she took his photo class at
the ID. A year later, she married Arthur Siegel, the photographer and
Callahan’s colleague at the ID (she was 18 years younger) and saw
the Callahans “almost daily” for a period of years.
As Siegel tells it, the photo world and the ID were “very small”
in the Fifties—and many people did not take photography seriously
as an art form. Everybody knew everybody in the photo world and important
artists like Ansel Adams, Weegee, and Edward Weston visited Chicago often
and sometimes made use of a friend’s darkroom. ID people, including
Harry, drank “lots of whiskey” at parties.
There were no photo galleries in those days, few shows, and no money to
be made as an art photographer. A sale was a major event. Both Harry and
Arthur did commercial photography to make ends meet. Eleanor worked as
a secretary throughout the Callahans’ years in Chicago.
Eleanor’s sister was a secretary at the Museum of Modern Art and
she helped make the connection with Edward Steichen that led to Callahan’s
exhibition there in 1964. “Harry’s show at MOMA was a big
event,” Siegel says. He “exhibited more than the others”
and defended himself by acting like “an ordinary guy” when
people over-intellectualized his work.
Callahan had “no female followers, only guys,” Siegel remembers.
This was “not really discrimination,” because boys grow up
liking mechanical things and learning how to fix them, while girls do
not. Cameras were “very junky” then, requiring constant “fiddling”
and repair. Arthur (Siegel) and Harry talked photography “all the
time,” but their conversations about the latest lenses, enlargers,
filters and the like meant nothing to Irene who was a painter then. She
thinks that Callahan “got the idea” of experimentation after
he arrived at the ID in 1946 and says that his “most haunting photos”
are those that show Eleanor coming out of the water.
On June 29, the Art Institute of Chicago had a panel discussion of Harry
Callahan featuring the photographers Joseph Jachna, Kenneth Josephson,
Lewis Kostiner, Irene Siegel, and Joseph Sterling. All were former Callahan
students at either the ID or the Rhode Island School of Design.
The speakers recalled how different Callahan was from Aaron Siskind, who
also taught photography at the ID. Callahan was happily married to Eleanor
and a kind of homebody, while Siskind had two or three wives (one seemed
to be drunk all the time) and numerous amours.
Callahan was an artist type who did not talk technique in the classroom,
looked rapidly at student prints, and got straight to the point in conversation.
He had a simple, sensitive way of dealing with people and students learned
to look for non-verbal signs from him. Siskind was an intellectual, who
delivered opinions, sometimes caustic, but only when asked.
Students revered Callahan and Siskind because both men worked “like
dogs.” Everyone knew that Callahan spent much time taking photographs
outdoors, but students rarely encountered him on the street and they almost
never saw his work. At a party in Callahan’s apartment, nobody saw
any photos until someone looked in the closet and found them piled up
there. Callahan once showed some photographs, but he placed them on a
table and kept viewers at a distance. He had no system for cataloging
negatives and simply put them in a heap marked CHICAGO.
“It’s interesting,” says Irene Siegel, “how connected
the photographers still are to Harry and his work. “Painters outgrow
their teachers, but all these years later, the photographers still worship