Nature, Buildings and People

The CCP takes photography lovers behind some of Harry Callahan's legendary images

Harry Callahan was out walking along Lake Shore Drive in Chicago one winter day in 1950, his camera in hand, as usual.

A cluster of bare-branched trees caught the photographer's eye, and he began shooting. The wintry trees made a perfect composition, all black verticals and feathery branches rising up out of the Midwestern snows. But when he got back to the darkroom and printed the pictures, he was disappointed.

The veiny texture of the bark had reproduced beautifully, and Callahan didn't like it. Nature's markings, so beloved by photographers like Ansel Adams, had to go.

"So I printed it very black and white," he later recalled.

The resulting picture is all about line and space, blackness and whiteness. No texture, no mid-tones, no grays intrude; with a stark simplicity, "Chicago" conveys the essence of tree against snow. In the big new show at the Center for Creative Photography, Harry Callahan: The Photographer at Work, the finished photo is exhibited side by side with the negative. Peer closely at the negative, and you can see the finely textured bark that annoyed Callahan; look at the final picture, and you see how he banished that bark in the darkroom.

That's the point of the exhibition, curated by the center's Britt Salvesen.

"This launches a series of 'artists at work' exhibitions," Salvesen said by phone last week from New York, where she was attending a photography dealers' convention. In the Callahan show, which will be buttressed by a symposium in March, Salvesen said she hoped to "illuminate his process, his decision-making. ... I tried to trace it back from the pictures."

The center is ideally positioned to present an insider view of Callahan. Now revered as one of the greats of 20th-century photography, the prodigiously productive Callahan gave a staggering 600 prints and 140,000 negatives to the CCP when it opened back in 1975.

Salvesen has drawn 124 fine prints out of the Callahan treasure trove, and exhibited them along with negatives, dozens of contact sheets and printed materials that deliver clues to his practice. Four negatives, for instance, accompany the famous photo of his wife, Eleanor ("Eleanor, Chicago," 1949), emerging from the waters of Lake Michigan.

Two of the rejected negatives show Eleanor pushing her wet hair up atop her head; in another, her hair billows out into the lake. In the final negative--the one her husband printed--she has her eyes closed, and her dark hair flows down like a medieval Madonna's. One naked breast is barely visible beneath the water line. We can see immediately why Callahan seized on this version, blending, in one image, innocence and eroticism, light and dark.

Callahan (1912--1999) was an influential professor, teaching for years first at the Institute of Design in Chicago, and then at the Rhode Island School of Design, but he was almost entirely self-taught.

Born in Detroit, the son of a Chrysler autoworker, Harry took up the family business after bailing out of college, first working the line and then joining the auditing department, Salvesen tells us in a catalog co-published by Yale University Press and the center. The Chrysler work was tedious, and Callahan busied himself after hours in an amateur camera club. But he was equally uninspired by the club members' adherence to pictorialism, an old-fashioned aesthetic that had them creating fuzzy, romantic pictures.

Adams descended on this humble club to conduct a workshop in 1941, when Callahan was not yet 30, and the young amateur was awestruck by the master's precise prints.

"Adams' crisp nature studies ... stood in stark contrast with the soft-focus, manipulated imagery practiced in the camera clubs," Salvesen writes.

Not only did Callahan discover a new way of seeing, but a new way of living. He gave up Chrysler and was determined to pursue photography full time. But within a year or two, he discovered he preferred simple lines to Adams' elaborate textures. In 1943, he made his famous "Weeds in Snow," a delicate rendering of black lines against white, like pencil strokes in pure air. He didn't like the "tone, texture and all that" of his early versions of the picture, he later recalled, and he deliberately re-printed it "contrasty, very black and white, which was sort of anti what Ansel was talking about. ... And that turned out to be what I was after."

Nor did Callahan follow Adams into the wilderness. He found all the subjects he wanted or needed close to home. He early on settled on the trio of themes that would define his whole career--"nature, buildings and people"--and Salvesen has organized the show around them.

Famously disciplined, Callahan was "out with his camera every day, and in the darkroom every afternoon," Salvesen said.

Again and again, he shot pictures of weeds poking through snow, of fragments of buildings on Chicago streets, of faces of passers-by. But Callahan's work is hardly documentary.

A picture of a dilapidated twin house, "Chicago," 1949, for instance, is a study in symmetry. One half of the house has been painted dark, the other side light, and it's full of classical arches and rectangular windows, each one paired by an identical twin on the other side. The picture is not so much a condemnation of poverty or even a record of a dwelling place; instead, it's a formal study of shapes and light, almost coincidentally occasioned by a real house in the real world.

Callahan loved to go out and photograph pedestrians adrift in the big city; lost in thought, they're the very image of isolation and anomie. His wife, Eleanor, and daughter, Barbara, were frequent models, but even they inspired photos that are less intimate than universal. He dispassionately traces the lovely lines of his wife's nude body in such pictures as "Chicago," 1949. She reclines on a plain white surface, and with his camera, Callahan makes what amounts to a minimalist drawing of her back, buttocks and thighs.

Likewise, "Barbara, Chicago," 1950, positions the newborn infant on a white blanket against a black background. It's a beautiful but austere photo, less a proud father's loving tribute to his own new baby than a generic baby, reduced to a series of lovely lines and shapes.

Callahan did experiment with multiple exposures, to less interesting effect, and by the 1970s, he was shooting in color almost exclusively. The few color prints included here are exquisite. The painterly "Atlantic Coast," 1978, is the essence of seashore: a narrow band of ochre-tan sand stretches diagonally across the foreground; above it are the traces of white waves; above those, a thick gray fog blurs into the sky.

John Szarkowski, who gave him a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 1976, remarks in the catalog's foreword that Callahan is among the "coolest" of photographers.

"The emotional temperature of his work belongs to the upper edge of the North Temperate Zone. His pictures do not bully us with pathos ... or seduce us with honeyed rhythms. They merely state with simple precision their artistic case."