Harry Callahan (1912-1999) left a substantial body of work, yet I cannot help thinking he rues the fact that what he is remembered for most is the many pictures, frequently nudes, of his wife Eleanor.
And while he was an enthusiastic experimenter, be it with double exposures or light traces, these wonderful early pictures set a standard and style imitated, but seldom equaled, by many since.
It’s not that Eleanor is some sort of model ideal of a woman, whose modern image in men’s eyes dictates exaggerated breasts and miniscule hips. Quite the opposite. She is powerfully built, a woman of the mid-West, with solid bones and generous hips. A Real Woman. And does he do her justice. Whether it’s the powerful, face-on image showing a determined chin and direct gaze, or the many nude-in-landscape studies which define the genre, his photographs of his wife are never less than special and deservedly define his oeuvre.
The Chronology of his life in this book, published by Bulfinch, goes a long way to illustrating his restless mind and thirst for experiment. I quote:
1938 – Purchases first camera, a Rolleicord 120.
1941 – Begins to work with a 9 x 12 Linhof Technica (sic) camera.
1941 – Moved by the sharpness of Adams’ (sic) prints, trades enlarger for an 8 x 10 camera and begins to make contact prints.
1943 – Buys 35mm Contax single-lens reflex camera (sic – can’t they get anything right?) and begins two-year series of photographs of pedestrians.
The latter rival, by the way, anything done by Walker Evans in this genre, adopting a far grittier approach.
This is curiosity at its best and not mere fascination with equipment as Callahan takes lots and lots of pictures along the way.
He starts exhibiting in 1941 and thereafter it seems there is scarcely a month when a show or publication does not come to market.
Rightly so, for there is much to be learned from the mind of this true original, whether from the early monochrome or later color work.