Profiles in Black&White: Harry Callahan

In Black and White Photography, Photo Print Collector, Photographer on September 18, 2013 at 3:06 pm

Experience is the best teacher of all. And for that, there are no guarantees that one will become an artist. Only the journey matters.”  

Harry Callahan    


Harry Callahan was a product of the Motor City, Detroit, MI, in 1912. Like many of his neighbors, he initially sought work in an auto plant for Chrysler. After a brief foray into the world of engineering at Michigan State University, he would drop out and return to Chrysler once more. This time, he joined the company’s camera club. It was about 1938 when Callahan started to teach himself how to photograph. After attending an Ansel Adams lecture in 1941, he was inspired to pursue a career in art.

Callahan is a bit of a mystery in comparison to many of his contemporaries. Their pictures might carry numerous messages or explanations to tag along to their work. Less is known about Callahan. He was prone roaming the streets of his city and take numerous photos of whatever caught his eye; this trended through his life in Detroit, then Chicago –he was asked to join the faculty at the Institute of Design in 1946 – and through to Providence, where he established the photography department at Rhode Island School of design. Of the few that he produced final images of, he rarely, if ever, explicated them. Callahan was often experimenting with new ways to produce a photo. A photo might be double or triple exposed, blurred, or use either large or small format film. He also dabbled in the use of color film. Many of his photos would experiment with abstraction as well, reflecting upon life’s experiences.

One thing that was unequivocal was who his muse was. Eleanor Callahan met on Harry on a blind date in 1933 and three years later they were married. After the Ansel Adams lecture, Harry would photograph Eleanor for decades.

             “He just liked to take pictures of me,” she told an interviewer in 2008, according to the New York Times. “In every pose. Rain or shine. And whatever I was doing. If I was doing the dishes or if I was half asleep. And he knew that I never, never said no. I was always there for him. Because I knew that Harry would only do the right thing.”

When their lone child, Barbara, was born, she became a second subject for Callahan. Many of the images would symbolize a familial tenderness.

Callahan would be awarded the National Medal of Arts in 1996. He would die three years later in Atlanta, Georgia.

Examples of Callahan’s work can be found: Harry Callahan

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