Harry Callahan




One of the most influential American photographers of the second half of the twentieth century, Harry 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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Early Life

Harry Callahan was born on 22 October 1912, in Detroit, Michigan. He 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 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 was intuitive and introverted in his work, and from the very start of his career, it was his wife Eleanor that was to be his central model and muse. The pair met on a blind date in 1933 when both worked for Chrysler in Detroit, she as a secretary and he as a clerk in the parts department. They married three years after meeting. Throughout his career, Callahan’s photographs were 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.

Photographic Career

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 his newly established New Bauhaus, later to become the Chicago Institute of Design. Callahan’s photographs from the 1940s share the principles of Bauhaus design and experimentation, showing a strong sense of light, line and form. With the formal precision of the European Modernism that he had learnt from Maholy-Nagy, Callahan aimed to express his feelings about life through his photography. His work is imbued with a greater emotional resonance than other photographers associated with the New Bauhaus, although much of his work from this period explores total abstraction and the technicalities of the photographic medium. Callahan often used double and triple exposures, blurs, extreme contrasts and collage.

He stayed at the school 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 his wife Eleanor and their daughter Barbara.

Exhibitions and Awards

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. He was also the first photographer chosen to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale in 1978.

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. 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.

Exhibition In Focus: Chicago | Detroit

The exhibition explored the first two decades of Callahan's career, from the early 1940s until the late 1950s, when the photographer was based in Chicago. Having met László Moholy-Nagy in 1946, Callahan joined the faculty of the New Bauhaus that Moholy-Nagy had established in Chicago. Callahan’s photographs from the 1940s share the principles of Bauhaus design and experimentation.

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