One of the most influential American photographers of the second half of the twentieth century, Harry Morel Callahan (1912-1999) is noted as much for his work in colour as for his impressive body of work in black and white. His subjects include nature and light studies, and the streets, scenes, people and architecture of the cities where he lived. His prime subject, however, for fifteen years, was his wife, Eleanor.
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Callahan was born on 22 October, 1912, in Detroit, Michigan. He briefly studied Chemical Engineering and Business at Michigan State University but left before completing his course, accepting a job at the Chrysler Motor Parts Corporation in 1936. Here he took up photography, becoming a member of Chrysler’s Camera Club in 1938 and two years later joining Detroit’s Photo Guild. He was then inspired by a lecture given by Ansel Adams in 1941, and a meeting with Alfred Stieglitz the following year, to take his interest seriously and devote his energies to photography. Callahan’s work was a deeply personal response to his own life; he photographed his wife and daughter and the streets, scenes and buildings of the cities he called home. His photographs show a strong sense of light, line and form.
The development of Callahan’s reputation as a photographer was such that by 1946 he had received an invitation from László Moholy Nagy to teach at the Chicago Institute of Design. Here he stayed until 1961 when he moved to Rhode Island to establish a photography programme at the Rhode Island School of Design, remaining there until his retirement in 1977. Throughout his teaching career, Callahan encouraged his students to turn their cameras on their own lives, and he led by example in his frequent photography of Eleanor and their daughter Barbara. He was also experimental, using double and triple exposures, blurs, and large and small format film. But, for all this, Callahan left behind very little in the way of a written record: he left behind no letters, diaries or teaching notes.
Since his first one man show in 1947, Callahan’s work has been the subject of over sixty solo and group exhibitions around the world. In 1955 Edward Steichen included his work in the Museum of Modern Art’s famous touring exhibition, The Family of Man.
Exhibitions and Awards
Harry Callahan was the recipient of numerous awards throughout his career, including a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1972 and the National Medal of Arts in 1996. He died in Atlanta on 15 March 1999 and was survived by his wife, who died on 28 February 2012 in a hospice in the same city. He left behind 100,000 negatives and over 10,000 proof prints. Callahan’s archive is now held by The Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona.