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Harry Callahan

Text from Sarah Greenough, Harry Callahan

...

Yet it was with his series of photographs of Eleanor, more than with any other subject, that Callahan most fully learned what it meant to see photographically. Although he had photographed her intermittently before, beginning in 1947 he photographed Eleanor extensively for more than a decade and during that time she was central not only to his emotional, physical, and spiritual life, but also to his artistic development. He recorded her, as he recalls, "In an endless number of ways": nude and clothed; in parks, streets, and city squares; on the beach, in the water, in tents, and in the woods; in the privacy of their home - their ballroom studio or their bedroom - and the homes of relatives; in this country and in Europe; with their daughter Barbara or alone. He tried almost every technical or aesthetic experiment in his repertoire, including extreme contrast, silhouette, multiple exposure, serial and out-of-focus imagery as well as color and black-and-white and he pioneered a new approach, that of the formal "snapshot" made with an 8 x 10 inch view camera, of Eleanor and Barbara on their daily outings. In the resulting photographs Eleanor emerges in a multiplicity of ways. Through the snapshots, in which Eleanor and Barbara are often depicted as small figures within a large city or landscape, the strength and centrality of the relationship of mother and daughter is revealed; through multiple exposures, Eleanor is presented as one with the natural and urban world, made of the same substance that constitute those environments; and through silhouette, extreme contrast, and color, as well as in more straight forward studies, her beauty, presence, stature, dignity, and womanhood are described.

In all of these studies, Callahan did not strive to probe and uncover the innermost workings of Eleanor's psyche, nor did he want to describe her "many selves" as Stleglitz had attempted to do with O'Keeffe. Rather he hoped through his photography to discover and establish for himself those elements in their life together that had greatest meaning and resonance. He realized this was a private quest - "strictly my affair" - as he had said earlier in his career. Because of the intensity of his vision and because of his ability to translate his emotions and perceptions into visual forms, he was able to locate that meaning and convey it to others. Through his detailed studies of Eleanor, which delineate the boundaries of their lives together and describe the most intimate and incidental minutia of their daily existence - the feel of the folds of skin, for example, or the quality of light failing on the bed - Callahan speaks of an all-encompassing, ever-present relationship, one that is so powerful that even when he is not with her, he sees her all around him. And through his graceful, elegant presentations - the way he allows her to close her eyes, avert her gaze, or even turn her back to the camera, the way her body and face are always composed and comfortable, never disturbed or surprised - he reveals a relationship of profound trust, case, intimacy, and, most significantly, respect. Eleanor is never presented as an object for scrutiny and dissection. Even when she stares directly into the camera she projects her own calm self-confidence and retains her individuality, integrity, and privacy. Callahan never used Eleanor as a vehicle through which he tried to express his own preconceived notions of womanhood or motherhood. That was not his purpose. Instead, he used his photographs to understand their relationship and to define her meaning to him. Of greater significance, however, through the act of photographing Eleanor, Callahan came to realize that in order to see a subject photographically, he not only had to see and present it in a new and intense manner, so that both he and his viewers would look at it with greater care and attention, he also had to know the subject in all its details, permutations, and complexities; he had to respect its integrity; he had to comprehend his relation to it; and, most important, he had to understand how it resonated with his life.

Callahan rarely photographed Eleanor and Barbara after the late 1950s. The circumstances of their lives changed: on their return from an extended trip to Europe in 1958, Eleanor went back to work, and Barbara, who had so often been depicted with Eleanor, no longer had the patience or inclination to pose for her father. But in addition, perhaps because he had explored Eleanor as a subject so fully and thus understood his relationship to her so completely and on such an intimate and visceral level, he moved on to other things.


 


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