Harry Callahan

at the Museum of Contemporary Art, through September 21

By Stephen Longmire

As a young photographer in Detroit in the late 30s, like many amateurs at the time Harry Callahan relied on camera clubs for artistic guidance. In 1941 his friend Arthur Siegel arranged for Ansel Adams to visit the Detroit Photo Guild. Meeting Adams and seeing his work “completely set me free,” Callahan recalls in the videotaped interview that accompanies his retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art. He was inspired by the sharpness of Adams’s prints–a firm departure from the soft-focus “pictorialism” still popular at the time–by their full use of the tonal scale from black to white, and by the transcendent role nature played in them.

Callahan set out to emulate this master, but within two years he ran up against the limits of Adams’s lesson. In 1943 Callahan made a photograph of grasses growing through snow in a new manner, exemplary of his elegant minimalism. For the first time a classic print of the sort Adams advocated, using gray middle tones to show texture, failed to please Callahan. But an unorthodox high-contrast print, sheer black on white, felt just right. Callahan insists he was not rebelling against Adams’s technique. “I was just trying to get my picture,” he says. And he did. Many of Callahan’s best-known photographs from his glory years in Chicago (which began in 1946, when Siegel invited him to join the faculty of the Institute of Design) are printed in this same remarkably fresh high-contrast palette: his classic 1950 landscape of trees etched against a barely visible lakefront, or the 1949 shot of his wife standing, eyes closed, neck-deep in the lake.

In the spirit of an amateur, Callahan both respected and tested the rules then governing photographic art. He had been especially impressed by a sequence of nearly identical 1940 photographs Adams made of waves pounding a California beach: while the large camera remains stationary, the waves furl and unfurl. Placing these images side by side, Adams suggested in still photographs the longer time span of film–the window of time opened by his shutter was no longer an instant but a layering of instants. Before long, Callahan was layering such sequences within a single photographic frame.

Multiple exposure has typically been used to construct sentimental or surreal narratives, but Callahan made it a formal tool of repetition. The results are cinematic within a still frame, as if all the stages of motion Eadweard Muybridge used his camera to distinguish had been superimposed on top of one another. Callahan layers indistinguishable exposures of pedestrians dwarfed by cavernous alleys to create each of his frantic 1948 street scenes in Chicago’s Loop. Similar ventures five years earlier depict cars and pedestrians in Detroit, each figure multiplied so many times the street itself seems dizzy with movement. It’s an account of urban life in tune with the bebop jazz of the day.

Sometimes Callahan would invert the negative from his large-format camera between exposures, as in his classic 1948 image of windows repeated and reversed so many times that neither looking out nor looking in seems possible. Windows and picture frames have often been compared; as a picture of pictures, Callahan’s is close to abstract expressionism in its refutation of the need for recognizable subject matter.

In these same years Callahan made long single exposures of light sources in motion: reflections shimmering on water, stationary flashlights, neon signs and car grills set in motion by the rhythmic jiggling of a hand camera. These suggestive blurred pictures approximate the effect of multiple exposures in a single take: they distend fragments of time. Some of the best of them are in color. (Callahan began experimenting with color slide film long before it was popular among serious photographers, though he waited decades to print much of his color work.)

These multiple exposures and movement studies playfully ask, How many ways can the still photograph be unstilled? Callahan bends the rules of “straight” photography, the influential aesthetic exemplified by Adams. Straight photography involved using a large camera for the crystalline sharpness of its negatives, which were not enlarged but contact printed with minimal darkroom manipulation. Photographers of Adams’s generation believed in the camera’s ability to tell a higher order of truth than the eye could perceive, rather as today’s photographers believe in the camera’s ability to lie.

If the lens saw more than the eye, it was imperative to purists that the negative not be altered, since it was closest to the camera’s “vision.” Hand retouching was tantamount to mortal sin, but any darkroom manipulation for effect–including cropping, or reframing after the initial exposure–was equally discouraged. Contact printing was favored because it was closest to the negative, both physically and tonally. Many photographers still boast that their negatives are uncropped, though none today deny they selectively “dodge” or “burn” areas of a negative in the darkroom to improve a print.

Callahan often used traditional large-format cameras, but he wielded a view camera with the freedom most photographers reserve for their smaller handheld equipment. To him the camera was a tool for tasks yet undiscovered, a tool whose potential he dissected as he worked. It’s noteworthy, however, that he always made his pictures in the camera, retaining a modernist’s respect for the defining feature of his medium. Newcomers to Callahan’s multiple exposures in this computer age might take them for heavily manipulated imagery made in the darkroom, if not in Photoshop. Callahan could have achieved similar effects in the darkroom, but “I do it in the camera,” he says, “because I want to take it the way it comes.” He adds, “I think it’s my nature to accept the shape [of the frame]. I’m not a cropper.” Photographers are passive in this way: they do not invent worlds but reinvent them.

In fact Callahan never really breaks the rules of straight photography. He just bends them wildly, as if to say, This too is a straight print, this too is the camera’s vision. He releases still photography from the control of realism, just as Institute of Design founder Laszlo Moholy-Nagy did in the 30s with his photo-based collages. But Callahan manages this without ever leaving the camera. As National Gallery curator of photographs Sarah Greenough (who organized this traveling exhibition) writes in her catalog essay, “He recognized that while photography could faithfully depict the external world, it need not; the medium could create its own reality.” She also notes, “He merged Moholy-Nagy’s European modernism, which emphasized formal experimentation, with Ansel Adams’ and Alfred Stieglitz’s purism and their belief in the power of the medium to express the photographer’s subjective life.”

Callahan, who never attended art school, was one of the first American photographers to spend his professional life employed by art schools, a route that has since become standard. When Callahan left the Institute of Design in 1961, it was to become head of the photography department at the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design. In his years there he experimented extensively with color, which became his preferred medium after the mid-70s, and made some remarkable pictures of the ocean at Cape Cod. But the overview of his career this show affords makes clear that Callahan’s years in Providence were less artistically rewarding than the extraordinary ones in Chicago.

Women are the anchor of Callahan’s roaming vision, but over the years it seems this anchor shifted. The large-format “snapshots” he made throughout the 50s of his wife Eleanor and daughter Barbara, nude and clothed, in everyday situations are surely the tenderest of his pictures of women. These unsettle traditions of photographic subjects as other images he made at the time unsettle traditional photographic processes. Can you make a snapshot with an eight-by-ten view camera? they inquire. The insistent banality of the settings–now in the city, now in the country, now at the beach–amounts to a serious meditation on the role of photography in American family life. Callahan’s feeling for his family is clear; his daughter’s reluctance to continue posing seems to have brought the series to a close. Years later, his work made possible the artful family photography of Emmet Gowin, Sally Mann, and Nicholas Nixon.

Ehlers-Caudill Gallery features Callahan’s 1950 series of close-ups of women’s faces in downtown Chicago (through October 18), which Callahan uncharacteristically titled: in “Women Lost in Thought” he shares his tenderness with strangers. His later pictures of women–beginning with the 1961 Chicago street portraits, shot from low to the ground with a cruelly distorting wide-angle lens–are dramatically different. The distance between the photographer and his subjects is bluntly physical, exaggerated by the lens–the opposite of the intimacy he had with the daydreamers of the earlier street scenes.

In Providence and, since his retirement in 1977, in Atlanta, Callahan has photographed mannequins in shop windows as well as women’s faces on television, both subjects distanced by the “natural” double exposures of reflections in glass. These faces are iconic and vacant. Other recent Callahan photographs feature precise compositions of colorful streets; when not empty, they’re peopled by isolated individuals, often older men. It’s a chilling vision from a seemingly gentle man. (Not so chilling, however, as the predatory street photographs of women Garry Winogrand made, following Callahan’s lead, in the streets of New York in the 70s.)

Because Callahan’s works have been widely–though seldom so fully–exhibited, the MCA show holds only a few surprises. Among them is a 1990 triptych of three silver dye-bleach prints showing torn political posters of women’s faces. These defaced heroines of a forgotten revolution are a far cry from Siskind’s abstract studies of torn posters and peeling paint; they leave one wondering what, if anything, Callahan will photograph next. The loose ends of his last years indicate a new direction as yet unresolved.

Whether or not Callahan continues working (a stroke early in 1996 puts this in question), his example is a gift to the many photographers who, knowingly or unknowingly, follow in his footsteps. When photographers like Adam Fuss and Abelardo Morell interrogate their medium at its most basic levels, with cameraless photographs and room-size pinhole cameras, they too are working in Callahan’s radical tradition.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): “Eleanor, Chicago, 1952”, “Detroit, 1943”.