|Harry Morey Callahan was one of the most influential photographers of the twentieth century and is best known for utilizing the objectivity of straight photography to produce works that reinvented reality, “to charge it with personal, even mythic, resonance.” (Davis)
Callahan was the son of a Midwestern farmer who moved to Detroit to get work in the auto factories. He purchased his first camera in 1938, when he was a 26 year-old clerk in the shipping department of Chrysler Motors. While there, he joined the Chrysler camera club and then the Detroit Photo Guild. In 1941, he met Ansel Adams who gave a workshop in Detroit. Callahan was struck by “Adam’s crisp nature studies and precise prints… [which] stood in stark contrast with the soft-focus, manipulated imagery practiced in the camera clubs.” (Salvesen) Adams’ pictures demonstrated how clear, sharp, highly detailed descriptions of the visible world could be expressive. Adams offered him Stieglitz’s model of transcendentalism and equivalency. “I wanted something important, something spiritual in my life then” Callahan later said. In the summer of 1942, Callahan traveled to New York to meet Stieglitz, but was too intimidated to show his photographs. He admired Stieglitz’s series of portraits of Georgia O’Keeffe, which inspired him to begin the decades-long series of portraits of his wife Eleanor.
Around this time, Callahan befriended Detroit-area photographer, Arthur Siegel, who was a practicing photojournalist. Siegel had studied with László Moholy-Nagy, a European émigré who founded the New Bauhaus school in Chicago. Through informal gatherings at Siegel’s house, he became acquainted with Moholy-Nagy’s Bauhaus teachings. Within two years of meeting Adams, Callahan developed the themes and techniques that would characterize his 50-year career. He experimented with modernist ideas derived from Bauhaus teachings. He experimented with cameras in a range of sizes, from 35 mm to 8 x 10 inch formats; and made multiple exposures, high-contrast prints and used both black and white and color film. Yet, he also he imbued his straight photographs of the every-day world with personal expression. Callahan explored a range of subjects – landscapes and city streets as well as portraits of his wife Eleanor and daughter Barbara.
Arthur Siegel was asked to join the photography faculty at the Institute of Design in Chicago in 1945, and the next year he invited Callahan to join as well. In 1961, he began to teach at the Rhode Island School of Design, retiring in 1977. From the late 1940s to early 1960s, Callahan’s central model and muse was his wife Eleanor Callahan, and after her birth in 1950, his daughter Barbara. By the 1970s, he had begun to focus on color photography. He had made color photographs for several years, but they existed only as Kodachrome transparencies. In the late 1970s be began to produce dye transfer prints. Also in the 1970s, Callahan began to concentrate more on exterior themes, such as the beach, city and land. In 1983, the Callahans moved to Atlanta where Harry developed his Peachtree series. He passed away in Atlanta on March 15, 1999.
Harry Callahan’s work is in many museum and private collections in the United States and Europe including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Museum of Modern Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, The High Museum, the George Eastman House, and the Corcoran Gallery of Art. His archive is in the Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona.