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.