Considered one of the most influential photographers of the twentieth century, Harry Callahan helped to bring photography into the mainstream of the art world.
Harry Callahan grew up in the suburb of Royal Oak, where he graduated from the public schools. His parents were farmers who moved to Detroit in order to find work in the auto industry. Callahan attended Michigan State College in East Lansing for three semesters and studied engineering. He left school in 1933 and obtained a job as a shipping clerk with Chrysler Parts Corporation. The same year, Callahan met his future wife, Eleanor Knapp. He considered this one of the two great events of his life; the other was the purchase of his first camera in 1938. His dentist showed him a movie camera and he wanted to buy one. They were too expensive, so he bought a Rolleicord still camera instead.
Callahan began taking pictures as a hobby. He joined the Chrysler Camera Club and later the Detroit Photo Guild. He had no formal training as a photographer except for a few workshops. According to Callahan's own writings, he was terrifically naive, which he considered his great strength. He felt that he had fresh eyes because he didn't have any training. He wrote that photography was an adventure just as life was an adventure. When Ansel Adams, gave a workshop in 1941 at the Detroit Photo Guild, Callahan was impressed. Adams showed examples of his own work and introduced members to the work of Alfred Stieglitz. Though Callahan liked all of Adams' work, he was most interested in his close-ups of plants and the ground. This was a turning point in Callahan's life—he believed that he too was an artist with the camera. He left the Detroit Photo Guild shortly after this experience, believing that photography clubs were too limiting. Like Adams, Callahan began using a huge view camera loaded with 8-by 10 inch negatives that he could print by laying them directly on photosensitive paper and exposing them to light. He was self-motivated, extremely curious about technique, and continually willing to try new approaches. He worked with extreme contrast, collage, multiple and time exposures, camera motion, and unique lighting.
By 1944, Callahan was a processing assistant at the General Motors Photographic Laboratories in Detroit. He realized that his urban background influenced the subjects he chose. For instance, he chose small things like tree branches and set them against big cityscapes. Callahan met Alfred Stieglitz in 1942, but was reluctant to show the master photographer any of his own work. On a later trip, in 1946, Callahan brought his portfolio. According to Callahan, Stieglitz was stunned. After viewing Stieglitz photographs of his wife, the painter Georgia O'Keeffe, Callahan began taking many intimate pictures of his wife Eleanor, and of his daughter, Barbara. A portrait called "Eleanor, Chicago" (about 1953) was one of his most admired. He also appeared to have followed Stieglitz's cloud abstractions with a series of abstract water photographs. During this period, he took some of his most enduring pictures, held his first exhibit, and saw his photographs displayed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
By this time, Callahan had left his position with General Motors and needed a job to support his family. Laszlo Moholy-Nagy saw Callahan's portfolio and hired him to teach at the Institute of Design in Chicago, which became part of the Illinois Institute of Technology in 1949. Callhan taught there from 1946 to 1961, becoming head of the department in 1949.
Callahan set up a darkroom and began turning out black and white silver prints in the kitchen sink. His first prints sold for five dollars each. The Institute of Design, based upon the German Bauhaus laboratory of art and design of the 1930s, was considered somewhat unorthodox. It was one of the few schools that included photography as an academic discipline. Photographers concentrated on personal themes, nature studies, and abstractions. The Bauhaus school embodied the utopian ideal of joining creative design and mass technology to bring art to everyday life. Callahan supported the idea that an art form like photography was as much machine-made as it was man made.
Subjects from everyday life were Callahan's choice through most of his career. His first photographs were very small, often the size of a postcard. Richard Lacayo suggested in a Time article that "… Callahan shared with the Abstract Expressionist painters a penchant for the sublime, but he worked toward it from a different direction. They preferred wall-size canvases, a match for the presumed immensities of the spiritual realm; he made pictures the size of an intuition." No examination of Callahan's work would be complete without a discussion of the photos of his wife, Eleanor. In 1984, the San Francisco Museum of Art hosted a retrospective exhibit of his photographs of his wife and daughter entitled Eleanor and Barbara, taken from 1940 to 1960. The 78 prints revealed the variety of techniques that Callahan used during those years, including multiple exposures, silhouette, high key abstractions and unmanipulated images. Eleanor, Chicago, 1949 shows Eleanor rising from the water in stark black and white. According to Julia Scully who reviewed the exhibit for Modern Photography, "… each photograph has a spare elegance, an exactness of composition combined with masterly techniques." Most of Callahan's famous images were made close to home. In Detroit, he photographed weeds in snow and water, while in Chicago he utilized images of city streets and buildings. Wherever he was, he photographed Eleanor. Callahan identified almost all of his photographs by place and year. Very few are titled.
Callahan had not done much traveling when he received a fellowship in 1958 to work in France. The subjects he photographed continued to be very personal—many included his wife. When he returned to America after fifteen months, he felt that he had outgrown Chicago and accepted a position as director of the photography department at the Rhode Island School of Design. The change of scene gave him a new canvas to explore. In the 1970s, Callahan produced his Cape Cod images of sea, sand, and beaches that were quite different from his earlier work. Toward the end of his career, Callahan worked with more color film, taking pictures in Rhode Island as well as Morocco, Portugal, and Ireland. He also began to develop color negatives that he had taken decades ago. His color work was considered as impressive as his black and white images. Callahan's subject matter continued to be his wife and daughter, or whatever else was near at had.
Callahan was married to the same woman all of his adult life and was devoted to his family. He was one of the first photographers to earn a successful living in the profession. Callahan was considered to be an excellent teacher. The Institute of Design was one of only two schools granting degrees in photography when Callahan began teaching. Many of his students took university jobs throughout the United States, spreading the influence of their teacher. When he died of cancer at his home in Atlanta, Georgia on March 15, 1999, Callahan left a huge body of work. The Callahan archive is located at the Center for Creative Photography, in Tucson, Arizona. It contains approximately 20,000 prints, 5,000 slides, and 100,000 negatives.