New York

Harry Callahan

Light Gallery

Harry Callahan’s recent exhibition at Light Gallery shows his continued interest in relationships of texture, space, and light around the subjects of city buildings, beach landscapes, and wooded areas. His work is essentially unmanipulated (the image isn’t changed after it is taken), although he has made extensive use of multiple exposures and has explored various perspectival distortions—the perception of one’s position in space while simultaneously seeing up, down, and at the periphery of one’s vision. Callahan, who developed a program in photography at the University of Illinois under Moholy-Nagy, was one of the first to experiment with pictures taken with a small camera and a wide-angle lens from low vantage points in order to capture strange and unpredictable relationships.

Callahan’s work is one of painterly refinement in terms of line, pattern, and texture. While his interest in natural forms shows the influence of Ansel Adams, Callahan’s work is, for the most part, less dramatic and stylized. In a series of recent photographs of dried grass and shrubbery, veins of illuminated twigs form a delicate tracery through profuse shrubbery. Light is used to augment the feeling of texture in this graphic patterning. These pictures, which relate to earlier ones taken in Detroit and Aix-en-Provence, are largely gestural, creating an atmosphere of texture instead of concentrating on small increments of change or relationships between parts.

Another subject predominating in Callahan’s work, the beach or desert landscape, is treated in two ways. The first involves fairly straightforward shots conveying qualities of atmosphere, light, and space. For example, two frontal pictures of waves breaking upon the shore, taken almost immediately after each other, give the feeling of a unity of vision, the interest in the scalelike integers of the waves receding toward the horizon. This wholeness is also apparent in three photographs of desert landscape, which concern the relationship between land and sky, the texture of wind-pocked sand, and light as it merges detail in a pervasive tonality.

The second type of beachscape includes some perceptive photographs. In these pictures, large abstract movements of light, shadow, and lines dividing land and sky are counterpointed by small details like people and boats, particular in their function as shape and direction although frequently seen as marks before identified as subjects. These elements lead the eye back into space through complex routes of vision, often using the wide-angle lens to create polydirectional perception with multiple vanishing points. While logically inconsistent, these distortions accord with actual perception.

Callahan also uses the wide-angle lens in his photographs of the city. Some of these pictures are successful in conveying the vertigo experienced beside towering buildings and the sensation of seeing close and distant detail simultaneously. However, many of these pictures seem contrived, relying on the technical device, because the distortions are exaggerated beyond the realities of perception. In these photographs, light is used merely to exaggerate the drama of the distortion, the dark. buildings outlined against the white and vacant sky.

For the most part, however, Callahan’s vision is precise and inventive, capable of capturing perceptual phenomena in an almost pictorial way. His photographs seem timeless and still, conveying the particularity of light and space rather than of literal objects and place.

––Lizzie Borden