Review: Harry Callahan photography exhibit at the National Gallery of Art

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.

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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.

But while Callahan is a master of the cool, he is never cold. There is humor throughout his work, including in two photographs (new to this retrospective) that show a fence post and a chain in a Chicago park. In one, the chain is taut, seemingly holding the fence post in mid-air; in another it hangs loose, deflated or lifeless. They are a funny pair of photographs, but also susceptible to darker readings, with echoes of crucifixion images.

During the 1940s and ’50s, Callahan’s work was deeply affected by the resolutely humanizing presence of his wife, Eleanor, and daughter, Barbara. Frequent subjects, though consistently inscrutable, Eleanor and Barbara are the shadow puppets of his career, a direct testament to his family life, but always seen as if behind some kind of veil or scrim. They are markers of an intimacy that Callahan never violates by direct exposure.

Eleanor, in particular, is photographed down to the very last details of anatomy. She remembers that during these years, she might be cooking or cleaning, and suddenly Harry would announce: “ ‘Take off your clothes.’ And that would be that.”

The results are sometimes staggering. A 1947 image of what appears to be the lines created by Eleanor’s legs and buttocks looks like a Cycladic statue, relentlessly rectilinear but soft around the edges, freakishly modern and ancient at the same time. An 1953 image of Eleanor and Barbara bathing in Lake Michigan dissolves the horizon, fusing lake and sky into a field of shimmering gray. The two figures seem suspended in space, dematerialized, like characters in a dream.

It’s a small miracle that no matter how much Callahan’s camera dissects the world, the photographs never seem clinical. He divorces things from context, pulls out small vignettes from the larger city, but without violence, and without the gamesmanship of a photographer inclined to the cheap surreal.

But he is never seduced by the world, either. In sharp contrast to the small, jewellike images of his early career are late photographs he made while traveling in Peru, Ireland and Morocco. They are anti-snapshots, studies in how not to make images redolent of the foreign or exotic. An image from Cuzco, taken in 1974, shows a woman in traditional dress seemingly being swallowed by a large, wing-shaped shadow. She is moving out of the frame of the picture, as if chased by the giant light and dark forms that define her world.

It is as close as Callahan comes, in a picture that is purely an exercise in abstraction, to letting formal ideas overwhelm all else. This is not the Peru of National Geographic, or postcards, or a thousand times a thousand images on Facebook and Flickr. It is a Peru discovered inside the guts of Callahan’s camera, terrifyingly foreign in a way that transcends mere differences of place, language and culture.

Harry Callahan at 100

On view in the National Gallery of Art’s West Wing through March 4. Admission is free. For more information, visit www.nga.gov.

 
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