PRINT September 1964



Harry Callahan, Photographs (Santa Barbara: El Mochuelo Gallery), 1964. 126 plates.

THE PHOTOGRAPHS THAT Harry Callahan has chosen to include in the present volume radiate such intense visual so­phistication that one wonders if he is not the epitome of the photographer's photographer, the degree of the view­er's response depending on how deeply he is saturated with the photographic mystique. For Callahan is completely committed; his eyes and hands co­operate to bring us images that are important and individual. From the un­likely amalgam of influences on his work of Ansel Adams, whose straight approach to photography was shown to him at the Detroit Camera Club before the war, and Lazio Moholy-Nagy, whose free experimental approach he learned at the Institute of Design in Chicago where he went to teach in 1946, Callahan has evolved a synthesis that is peculiarly his own.

His subject matter is the very per­sonal world around him, first, his love for his wife, Eleanor, and his daughter, Barbara. These photographs bespeak a devotion and tenderness that makes Callahan at one with the image in front of him. Eleanor is seen not as an ex­ternal model; she is the essence of Callahan's life, deeply cherished, deep­ly shared. He seems to be drawing strength from her strength, peace from her peace. Her body, pregnant, seems the symbol of universal life force.

The contrast between the abundance of Callahan's own life and the life he sees about him is perceptively detailed in the series of photographs of people—almost all women—whom he photo­graphed on the streets of Chicago. Un­like the placid Eleanor and Barbara, these women are harried and miser­able. Their heads are down, their shoul­ders bent as they stride from one dissatisfaction to another. They are isolated; fear and loneliness are their constant companions. Some of them look as if they had never laughed. In closeups, their eyes are haunted and their mouths taut. But they are worry­ing only about things that impinge on their own lives—they worry because the phone company has complained about an overdue bill; they have ar­gued with their mothers-in-law; their feet hurt. Callahan views the difference between his life and theirs with tre­mendous compassion, and, it seems, a certain bewilderment.

The five-cent Freudian interpretation of Callahan's preoccupation with wo­men and windows has, of course, been spelled out by the parlor psychoana­lysts. He has often photographed Chicago houses, sometimes large sections, sometimes only a couple of windows, and he regards his photographs not as social commentary but as significant patterns which portray the life that must take place there. The houses are photographed without people, but the curtains show that the rooms are oc­cupied, and the facades often wear the same dreary, empty expressions as his women, who, for that matter, possibly live there.

There are at least three kinds of ex­perimentation in photography. The first, as exemplified by Callahan and too few other photographers, uses double exposure and printing, or high contrast as an integral part of the original concept. The experimental de­vice is as essential a part of the photograph as the pressing of the shutter release. This is an honest use of techniques which can free the photographer's imagination and contribute to his artistry. The second type of experimen­tation, sometimes, but not very often, difficult to distinguish from the first, is the greatest pitfall that can ensnare the second-rate photographer who pours the experimental trick like ket­chup over the original idea—the negative isn't too sharp, so let's diffuse it; what would happen if we printed this one as a negative? Photography be­comes not art but craft. The third type of experimentation makes the photo­grapher pretend to be a painter, and takes place when the photographer has not sufficiently examined his reason for photographing.

But the ultimate test of any tech­nique is: Does it work? And Callahan's uses of devices which in the hands of lesser men become mere cheap trickery has made some of the most meaning­ful prints today. His lyric presentations of natural forms as black lines against white backgrounds, Weed against sky, Ivy tentacles on glass, Grass­es in snow, reduce the objects to their basic rhythms to intensify their signi­ficance. His resting his camera on a tripod to make several exposures of people as they pass by and occupy the same space is a poignant, almost heart­breaking, insight into the isolation of each person within the confines of his own soul. The multiple exposures of buildings and streets emphasize the commotion of life within the city. The means and the end are so tightly inter­woven that one is unthinkable without the other.

Callahan's photographs of natural objects, leaves, grasses, trees, some­times straight prints, sometimes high contrast or double prints, sometimes very dark prints, reflect again the peaceful contemplation of the Eleanor prints. They are poetically conceived, painstakingly carried out.

It is obvious that Callahan and Aaron Siskind have worked together; the photo­graphs of walls and details of signs are designed much as Siskind would design them, but such a photograph as Wall, Chicago, 1947 with its flaking white paint and splotches of black evokes a crowd of people, each alone and a­fraid. And this photograph may be a clue to Callahan's thinking. He is a man at peace with his own way of life and in tune with the design of the natural world, but around him he sees loneliness, emptiness, and confusion.

The selection of photographs in this volume is most satisfying. The prints are loosely grouped by subject matter—Eleanor and Barbara; city facades; city women; multiple exposures; studies from nature—one can return to these prints again and again.

Photographs by Harry Callahan is the first volume of a projected series of monographs on photographers to be published by El Mochuelo Gallery in Santa Barbara. It is a thoughtfully de­signed book with beautifully reproduced photographs and a comprehensive bibli­ography. The publisher plans to con­tinue the series with volumes on Wynn Bullock and John Brook.

Margery Mann