“I get tired of photographing in one way for a long time”.
I think it’s Harry Callahan’s attitude towards photography why you should know more about his work and the person behind it. Especially in this day and age, social media and the easiness of getting appreciation for your work tempt many people to stick only to one thing. Algorithms and your audience favour consistency, but I think that we often misinterpret what consistency or style means for our photography. Harry Callahan never did just one thing. His body of work contains a huge variety of different genres. However, the one thing consistent throughout his photographs is his love for abstraction. Harry Callahan was a perfectionist who never stopped experimenting with the means of photography – the perfect combination for breathtaking work.
Harry Callahan was born in Detroit where he also spent his early life. He worked for Chrysler as a young man and eventually joined the company’s camera club. It wasn’t until Ansel Adams gave a speech at this club that Callahan saw photography as more than a hobby. In this speech Adams talked about photography being an art in its own right. According to him it didn’t matter whether you’re photographing a dramatic landscape or just a wall outside of your house. Every image is equally valuable.
Callahan was highly influenced by Adams’ “perfectionist” style, but he also had a second mentor. Arthur Siegel and László Moholy-Nagy invited him to teach at the Chicago Institute of Design. During his time there, Moholy’s experimental and abstract work had great influence on Callahan. But it was the symbiosis of Adams and Molohy’s influences which ultimately defined his style. In his work you will always find the desire for “pure” photography mixed with the need for experimentation. Especially his line-studies show this experimental attitude towards mundane objects such as grass.
Callahan was a hard-worker. He would usually go out shooting in the morning and develop negatives in the afternoon. His way of working was to experiment with a subject over a long period of time. He often came back to old ideas and worked on them until he created a satisfactory photograph. As a result, Callahan produced huge amounts of images but only had about a dozen final images per year.
Eleanor And Colour Photography
One of his most photographed subjects was probably his wife Eleanor, sometimes together with their daughter Barbara. The images of her range from intimate portraits to landscapes where Eleanor becomes part of the surrounding environment. Even in her most personal portraits, she always seems to be more of a vessel for the viewer’s interpretation than a subject carrying a story.
I personally love Callaghan’s images of his wife because of how diverse they are. The contrast of intimate photographs to images where she’s just a part of something bigger – they tell a lot about Callahan’s character and their relationship.
Despite the Fine Arts establishment primarily photographing black and white, Callahan was one of the first to experiment with colour. As early as the 1940s, he began playing with long exposures fascinated by their beauty and abstraction. This way he worked around the problems in the early stages of colour photography. His eye for colour combinations paired with his well thought out compositions made for striking images from early on. Even though Callahan started working in colour so early on, he didn’t publish any of it until 1976.
Where in my opinion both his coloured work and compositional expertise peaked in brilliance are his experimentations with double or multiple exposures. By repetition of shapes he created complex but at the same time reprehensible patterns. He often accentuated a certain element which was typical for the cityscape or landscape. At other times, patterns became so abstract that they were hardly recognisable.
Eleanor also was the subject in several double exposures. The theme of her being in some kind of relationship with her surrounding remained but in a much more abstract way and more room for interpretation. Callahan did all his double exposures in camera which makes them even more inspiring. It also shows his love towards the craft and the playfulness that came with his way of working.
What To Take Away
I think what you can learn from Harry Callahan is to never stop experimenting. He never settled for just one genre but instead often moved on when he felt like he had worked on something long enough. With many of us constantly repeating ourselves for the sake of likes on social media, I think it’s important to remind ourselves of all the opportunities we have and also make use of them.
In addition to that you shouldn’t be easily satisfied with your own work. Callahan repeatedly got back to his subjects and was highly critical of his own photographs. This ment that he would only put out the highest quality. Being selective about what you present to your audience might be one of the most important aspects of a good photographer but it’s also something easy to forget. It’s hard to combine it with posting frequently in social media. Still, next time you’re about to post something take a step back and really think if that’s what you want to stand for.
Lastly, Callahan always found interest in the ordinary. I often find myself whining about not living in a more exciting city. But I’d be wrong to assume that there would ever not be a picture around me. To see what he could make out of something completely mundane is immensely inspiring, and he will always have my highest appreciation for that.