Three of "the seven top photographers in the country" got together last night and found almost nothing to say to each other.

"Egos," explained one observer.

Lost in the crowd of loyal Democrats and Walter Mondale supporters, were Harry Callahan, James Van Der Zee and William Eggleston. Of the seven photographers, they were the only three who came to Washington to be thanked for contributing to a limited edition portfolio of photographs dreamed up by Joan Mondale to benefit her husband's "Committee for the Future of America." Mondale's political action committee hopes to raise $150,000 (each of the 75 portfolios costs $2,000) to support Democratic candidates for office in 1982.

The seven photographs from the portfolio--all unlabeled--teetered on easels set up in the Northwest Washington living room of Mondale boosters Sandra and Jim Fitzpatrick, as 100 guests--mostly arts folk--sipped drinks and milled around trying to guess who had done which, without ever asking, of course.

A balding, good-humored Harry Callahan--the first photographer ever to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale--spent more time than most looking at the photographs, including his own dramatically shadowed "Wabash Avenue, Chicago." He seemed surprised to discover that all of the other six photographers had not hand-printed each of the 75 prints, as he had--eight days of solid work. He said he made this formidable contribution of free labor to the Mondale cause (his photographs normally bring a minimum of $750 apiece) because he was "more a Democrat than a Republican."

"He's the one who has high prices," chuckled Callahan, pointing to a photo of a snow-covered tree by Ansel Adams. "Lotti Jacobi surely printed hers an image of Einstein . And I'm sure Eliot Porter printed his own work--he wouldn't let anyone else touch it. And Garry Winogrand--he surely did his own printing. He works like a dog." Winogrand's photo, in fact, was that of a rearing horse.

While Eggleston, sporting a red bow tie and speaking with a heavy Memphis drawl, stationed himself in a corner--still as the porch swing in his photograph--Van Der Zee, 96, held court on a sofa with his devoted wife, Donna, 60 years his junior. The former interior designer married the famous Harlem photographer when he was down and out in 1978, and, as she put it, "people were picking away at his work like bones in a desert." Since then, Van Der Zee has started photographing again, though the photograph in the Mondale portfolio dates from 1924.

"It was a date Fritz guessed just by looking," boasted Joan Mondale, after somebody clapped his hands for silence so she could say her thanks to all who made the portfolio possible, and--in advance--to those she hoped would buy it.

"And now Fritz would like to say a word, wouldn't you Fritz?" Looking a bit surprised, the former vice president pulled himself quickly together and praised his wife "for trying to elevate the status of photography in the Carter administration," and praised Eliot Porter, who was not present, for the sentiments expressed when he was asked to contribute an image to the portfolio. "I'll do anything to get rid of James Watt," said Porter.

"So will I," concluded Mondale.