New York

Harry Callahan

The extraordinary thing about Harry Callahan’s career is that, in the full course of it, he has managed to try just about every angle on photography that its history has come up with. Callahan has made photographs that are nearly complete abstractions, painstakingly calculated large-camera landscapes, 35mm pictures of passersby in the street, numberless portraits of his wife—he has even made collages of his pictures and then photographed these. His eclecticism, probably the most extreme photography has known, has been the deliberate result of dividing his work into a series of discrete projects, each organized around a specific technique and subject.

The perhaps unfortunate result of this unique variety is that Callahan’s retrospective looks like a collection of experiments, only some of which yielded one or a few precious solutions. Depending on one’s notion of what a significant artist’s work should finally amount to, it may be seen as a failure or a virtue that Callahan’s does not resolve into a whole, large, epic world. To me, his outstanding successes seem infrequent and, because of their ambiguous context, ephemeral.

It is not that there is no continuity between Callahan’s motifs, or his pictures, but that the connections are so rarefied. Indeed, the continuing presence of a single sensibility is clear: the same desire for the same kind of meticulous arrangement of detail is at work in the disposition of small black patches of photographic paper in a 1957 collage and in the sighting of distant figures in a 1972 picture of a Cape Cod beach. Callahan crosses generic boundaries exclusively through his pervasive formalism. He uproots his living subjects from life and, in all but exceptional cases, reduces paper cutouts, telephone wires and people alike to a geometrical coinage. This is highly unusual in photography, and is an even more austere manner of art-making than that of Albers, Mondrian or Reinhardt. Lacking the color, size and texture that enliven these artists’ works, Callahan’s pictures become a series of icy and isolated jewels.

The nature of the reduction Callahan works on the things he photographs is not scientistic. If his work was given some of its impetus by the neo-Bauhausian esthetic in which he was immersed during his tenure at the Institute of Design in Chicago in the 1950s, its primary character is, nevertheless, idiosyncratically puritanical. As John Szarkowski writes in his introduction to Callahan’s monograph, “His nudes do not propose lust, his forests are free of insects, the pedestrians on his city sidewalks suffer not as you and I but as the saints and warriors that are seen in old museums.” Yet Callahan’s work does not aim to reconstitute reality as an ideal, more livable place, infuse it with romantic, inspirational force, to reconstruct it from its ruins. His pictures defer both the real world and our cherished ideas of it that compose a world of their own—Callahan holds reality at bay. Thus the source of his eclecticism: the progress of his work refuses to be dominated by any dream of continuity at all, whether one the world proposes or one his own experience dictates.

Finally, of course, Callahan’s eclecticism and his austerity do proffer a world view, though his work neither illustrates that view nor communicates it by metaphor. The whole of his work operates as an example and, in a sense, an admonishment to those who would experience.

Callahan bargains with reality so as to annihilate it. To me, his work seems remote, foreign and somewhat insubstantial. Not all of his pictures affect me this way, but then those which do not—the rich, luxurious, violent, assertive ones—probably seem to Callahan too fall somewhere outside his sense of himself. In particular his Cape Cod, 1972, in which minute figures amble in solitude across a great expanse of beach, ethereally sunlit through pale screens of clouds, evokes a notion of the inhabitants of this world all silently and distantly pursuing their fates. There is compassion in this picture; I would say that Callahan regards these fates with the longest, gentlest hindsight, through which no life’s outcome appears disastrous, but merely a fact.

Some of the other photographs in the Cape Cod series manifest the same attitude, but I think the entire series is anomalous in Callahan’s oeuvre. The series is a late one, and in it he may have relaxed the strict asceticism that marked all but an occasional earlier picture. Two such earlier photographs are a 1947 closely cut portrait of Eleanor, and a 1950 Chicago head. In the former, Eleanor faces the camera starkly with an individual’s pride, a lover’s vulnerability and a confidant’s dispassion all suspended in the same expression. In the latter, a young, heavily lipsticked woman shows hurt in her eyes and anger in her lilting mouth while her earrings, makeup, her lovely self-absorption and the monumental flare of sunlight in her hair suggest the lovers’ tangle that has brought her these feelings. I appreciate such human qualities, when they appear, in Callahan’s work. When they do not, Callahan presents me with an unresolvable difference in values.

Leo Rubinfien