Seeing Harry Callahan’s work on the wall, as opposed to reproduced in a book, brings you face to face with how small many of the images are that have had such an outsize influence on American photography. In honor of the 100th anniversary of Callahan’s birth, and to display some of the 45 Callahan prints that were recently given to the museum by the photographer’s family, the National Gallery of Art has mounted a centennial retrospective of his work.
Much of what is on display is a reprise of the important Callahan show mounted in 1996, when the photographer was still alive. But Callahan, a master of the cool, arresting, formal print, a lifelong innovator and a restless perfectionist, is important enough that a reprise (with a few significant differences) is welcome after 15 years.
Born in Detroit in 1912, Callahan took up photography in his mid-20s, first as an amateur, then as one of the most driven, disciplined and innovative photographers working anywhere in the world. He was also a revered teacher, though even his most devoted students described a man who was rigorously un-didactic, a pedagogue who set up problems and experiments, which he would work on in parallel to his students. He died in 1999.
The first room of the exhibition, organized roughly chronologically, is a collection of jewellike images made early in Callahan’s career, most of them no more than three or four inches on a side. They draw the eye into a world that is meticulous but complicated, full of double exposures; carefully constructed visual games using strange angles, reflective surfaces and strong contrast; and sometimes breathtaking serenity and abstraction. Reeds of grass photographed with strong contrast against snow, or the patterns made by a flashlight in a dark room, create images that bypass centuries of representational imagery, a remarkable accomplishment for a photographer in the early 1940s who had owned a camera for only five years.
Many of these were contact prints, made by directly exposing the film to photographic paper, without the loss of detail or graininess that comes from enlargement. The multiple exposures, including a rare, 1942 self-portrait in which Callahan superimposes his feet and his upper body against a New York cityscape, were made in the camera, not in the darkroom. The detail and precision of the contact prints draw the eye in, where it becomes quickly lost in efforts to resolve the multiple exposures. Making them in the camera is far more difficult than overlaying multiple negatives in the darkroom. But can the eye detect a difference? There seems to be something, a metaphysical connection between the images produced in the camera vs. those manipulated in a darkroom. But as you try to define it, or explain it, the conviction evaporates.
Callahan was largely self-taught, though an early encounter with Ansel Adams in 1941 helped the photographer gain the artistic confidence and discipline to pursue the kinds of experiments that defined his career for the next half-century. He was hired by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy to teach photography at Chicago’s Institute of Design in 1946, and there are multiple images from Callahan’s early career that remind one of the Hungarian modernist’s aesthetic.