Obituary: Harry Callahan

Val Williams
Sunday 23 October 2011 06:40

IN 1951, Harry Callahan showed his photographs in a one-man exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago. At 38, he was head of photography at the institute, and was just beginning his lengthy career as an art photographer and teacher, a career which would change the face of American photography. Alongside Minor White and Aaron Siskind, he established a gravitas around photography which secured it as an art form in the United States.

Unlike the British photographers who struggled in the post-war years to elevate photography from its lowly position in the museum world, Callahan and his photographic colleagues had no ideological or institutional battles to fight. The photography department at the prestigious Museum of Modern Art (Moma) in New York had been established in the late 1930s, and under successive curators had proved to be a vital outlet for the new photography. Callahan's first exhibition at Moma was staged in 1960, positioning him as one of the foremost photographic innovators in the US, and assuring him of a large and influential audience for his work.

But Callahan, like so many of his contemporaries in photography, did not emerge from America's elite. Born in Detroit in 1912 into a farming family, Callahan studied engineering at Michigan State University but soon became discontented with his subject. He took an administrative job at Chrysler Motors in Detroit, but his burgeoning interest in photography increased, and in 1941, he signed on for a workshop with the master landscape photographer Ansel Adams.

For Callahan, this was the turning point. Ansel Adams used photography not to record or to document, but to express an intense spirituality, a deep communion with the natural world. For the 29-year-old clerk from Chrysler, Adams's workshop was a revelation. Abandoning his Rolleiflex camera, Callahan began to use a large format view camera, which by its depth of detail and definition, took photography back to its early-19th- century roots and demanded precision, concentration and a pre-formed idea of what the photograph would be.

Another revelation came in 1936, when Callahan met and married Eleanor Knapp. What began as a blind date became one of the most important partnerships in photographic history. Eleanor became Callahan's model, and he photographed her throughout the long years of their marriage. The studies which he made, often nude portraits. were both immensely tender and deeply realistic, nothing was altered, no blemish removed by the retoucher's knife. And though Callahan was a formalist, preoccupied with light and structure within his photographs, these images can also be read as a portrait of a marriage, two young people meeting each other's gaze through the camera's lens, exulting in the eroticism of their partnership.

By the mid-Fifties, Callahan's reputation as a photographer and teacher was assured. In 1957, he showed with Aaron Siskind at the Centre Culturel Americain in Paris, and it was this joint exhibition which exposed his work to British audiences, as the show toured to Algiers and London. Another major Fifties show was a group exhibition with Minor White and Walter Rosenblum, held at the Museum of Art at Cornell University, but not until 1962 did Callahan achieve real recognition in the world of American photography, with a 1962 exhibition with the pioneering documentarist Robert Frank at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

The 1960s were heady days in American photography. New on the scene were iconoclasts like Diane Arbus and Gary Winogrand, whose incisive photographs of Americans at home showed a society dysfunctional and in distress. Callahan's view of modern life was altogether more gentle and confident, as he continued to portray the idyll of his relationship with Eleanor. "Photography is an adventure just as life is an adventure," Callahan once remarked. "If man wishes to express himself photographically, he must understand, surely to a certain extent, his relationship to life." Callahan's relationship to life, if his photographs can be taken as evidence, was one of calm and diligence, as he pursued both the photographic idea and the domestic Utopia.

Like many master photographers of his time, Callahan was a devoted and inspired teacher. From the Institute of Design in Chicago (where he worked with Aaron Siskind) he went on to teach for many years at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence. He taught his students (who included future luminaries such as Linda Connor, Emmett Gowin and Kenneth Josephson) that the fine print dignified the photographer's vision. A craftsman as much as an artist, Callahan revered the process of photography and photographic printing, providing a standard for American black-and-white work which continues to this day.

Callahan's photographs were last seen in London in 1985 in a perhaps mistimed exhibition, "American Images", at the Barbican Art Gallery. Reactions to the exhibition ranged from mixed to hostile. The deeply toned fine prints of Callahan, Adams, White et al perhaps seemed an anachronism as Britain sped headlong through the Thatcher years. What seemed to be an untenably male and somewhat mystical view of the world was at odds with the drive to democratise photography, to use bright colour and to document the banal and the everyday. Callahan's photography was seen as privileged, academic and over- concerned with craftsmanship.

Over a decade later, it may be time to look again, to take a different reading of this remarkable body of work, to reflect on its resonance and its place in photographic history.

Harry Morey Callahan, photographer: born Detroit, Michigan 22 October 1912; married 1936 Eleanor Knapp (one daughter); died Atlanta, Georgia 15 March 1999.

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