Photography | Harry Callahan in the City

Chicago, 1961
Gelatin silver print

Harry Callahan: City
Pace/MacGill Gallery
32 East 57th Street, New York City, USA
9th January – 8th March, 2014

Every bit the committed educationalist he was for much of his working life: ‘Wanting to see more makes you grow as a person and growing makes you want to show more of life around you…’ Callahan (1912-1999) wrote in the monograph, Harry Callahan: Photographs, published by El Mochuelo Gallery, Santa Barbara in 1964.

Born in Detroit, Michigan, as a young man he worked at Chrysler, before leaving to study engineering, but, in 1938, began to teach himself photography. Attending an inspirational talk by Ansel Adams in 1941, and meeting Alfred Stieglitz the following year, he made up his mind to be a full-time photography. By 1946, Callahan, at 34, his talent having been noticed by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, was invited to put on his first solo exhibition there – seen by László Moholy-Nagy, who asked him to teach at the Institute of Design in Chicago (formerly known as the New Bauhaus). Staying until 1961 he moved on to establish a photography programme at the Rhode Island School of Design, teaching there until his retirement in 1977.

Moholy-Nagy had spotted that Callahan, like himself, was a modernist unafraid of using individual and intuitive methods to create his photographic images. Experimentalist, Callahan used both large and small format cameras and film, exploring double and triple exposure, as well as blurring. The exceptional creative breadth and investigative depth of his artistic process, paired with his rigorous devotion to craftsmanship, distinguish his works as masterpieces of modern photography.

Callahan’s photography was a deeply personal response to his own life. From 1948 to 1953 his wife Eleanor, and sometimes his daughter, Barbara – both of whom figured as the prime subject matter for a large number of his portraits and studies – appeared in his city and landscape photography, populating it and providing apparently incidental counterpoints to large expanses of parkland, skyline or water. The photographer’s other great theme was nature, which he shot without sentimentality, typically capturing the essence of the seasons and of plant forms in clean, stripped down, almost zen-like compositions.

Untitled, c 1954
Vintage gelatin silver print

Chicago, 1950
Vintage gelatin silver print

New York, 1974
Vintage gelatin silver print

His photographic method, woven in around his teaching commitments, was to leave home almost in the mornings, walk the streets of whichever city he was living in, and take numerous pictures. He would spend his afternoons editing and making proof prints of the day’s best shots. Other than his 100,000 negatives and over 10,000 proof prints (reported elsewhere as 40,000 negatives and 800 ‘pictures’) Callahan, in his own estimation, he is said to have claimed that he produced no more than half a dozen final images per year. He left few written records – no diaries, letters, scrapbooks or teaching notes, however, The Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona, maintains his photographic archives. His estate is represented by Pace/MacGill Gallery in New York City – who also represent the work of masters of photography such as Diane Arbus, Chuck Close, Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, Hiro, Irving Penn, Paolo Roversi, Hiroshi Sugimoto, William Wegman and Garry Winogrand – which is presenting the forthcoming exhibition Harry Callahan: City.

Callahan’s city pictures present the everyday urban environment from unexpected points of view. At a time when descriptive realism was the dominant aesthetic in American photography, his quest for conceptual expression went beyond the cityscape to express the urban state of mind. His series of faces of ‘women lost in thought’ on the streets of Chicago from 1950, for example, are psychological portraits of the city, amongst its physical architectural space.

A recipient of many distinctions, Callahan was the first photographer chosen to represent the United States at the 1978 Venice Biennial. His work has been the subject of numerous exhibitions at institutions such as the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the National Gallery of Art, Washington, and Center for Creative Photography, Arizona. Examples of his oeuvre are included in the collections of major museums worldwide, including the Art Institute of Chicago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the National Museum of Photography, Copenhagen, and the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

All images ©The Estate of Harry Callahan
Courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York

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