The National Gallery of Art presents a centenary retrospective of the American photographer Harry Callahan’s work that is enlightning.
Harry Callahan only looked for light in his pictures. It was with this amateur outlook that his passion for photography began. He learned the secrets of photography on his own, and would eventually become one of the most disciplined, dedicated and innovative photographers of the 20th century. In order to understand his passion for lines, you have to trace his career all the way back to his birth in 1912 in Detroit, Michigan, the cradle of the American automotive industry. He purchased his first camera in 1938 and joined the photography club hosted by his then employer, Chrysler Motors. His eye rapidly turned to buildings, people, street scenes, landscapes and cityscapes.
During his long walks, he loved more than anything to watch the play of sunlight, how its reflections and shadows could curve delicately around a man’s face, and endow dead buildings with a soul. Finding the perfect composition was almost an obsession, the way he brought out lines and forms, contrast and light. On his negatives, he cut houses in two, the black-and-white photos becoming half-white, half-black. The subjects take on heat, intertwine with rays of light, and reveal the line that separates the world between evidence and mystery. Callahan’s photography is like a child’s game, finding kaleidoscopic patterns in the natural world that our eyes overlooked.
Although he usually preferred distance to proximity, Callahan also trained his lens on his wife, Eleanor, and his daughter, Barbara. He photographed his wife every where: at their house, in town, in the countryside (sometimes with their daughter), in black-and-white and in color, clothed and nude, wide and close-up. Eleanor is an essential element in his art. And so was Barbara, even before her birth in 1950: we see her bulging inside Eleanor’s tummy. Later, Callahan photographed them both standing before a country scene, contrasting their size with the immensity of the parks, bodies of water, and horizons behind them. Yet they always remained the focus of the composition.
From the street to school
Callahan experimented with double and triple exposures, blurs, large and small formats. While teaching at the Institute of Design in Chicago, he encouraged his students to turn their cameras on their own lives, offering his own work as an example. Despite his personal approach, his work is never sentimental or romantic. The central role that Eleanor plays in his body of work should not be underestimated. The images represent neither what she is, what she does nor what she thinks. She is an integral part of an art that is a long reflection of the possibilities of the medium. The approach is playful, but never naive.
“It’s not about transmitting a vision but about touching people with my images.” Harry Callahan didn’t like to keep things around. He left almost no written records—no diaries, letters, notebooks or teaching notes. His method was to go out almost every morning, walk through the city and take pictures, then spend almost every afternoon making proofs of the day’s best negatives. Yet, for all his labor, Callahan claimed to produce no more than six or seven final images per year. He left behind 100,000 negatives and over 10,000 proofs. Among them is a rare self-portrait from 1942 where Callahan superimposed his feet and the top of his body on a picture of New York. The image is detailed and surprisingly precise.
The exhibition at the National Gallery of Art is among the largest since his death in 1999. His legacy is that of a perfectionist and a great professor whose teaching method and experiments, in the manner of his former mentor, Ansel Adams, who brought him his students’ admiration.
Harry Callahan at 100
Through March 4, 2012
National Gallery of Art
4th St NW
Washington, District of Columbia