Review: Harry Callahan: American Photographer

Harry Callahan, Eleanor, Port Huron, 1954

Harry Callahan: American Photographer at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (November 21,2009 – July 3, 2010) features recently acquired black-and-white and color photographs that survey major aspects of Callahan’s remarkable photographic career. Largely a self taught artist, Callahan’s career spanned six decades, including teaching positions at the Chicago Institute of Design, the American manifestation of the German school Bauhaus which promoted the experimentation in all the arts as well as a position at the Rhode Island School of Design where he taught until the mid 1970’s.

At the Chicago Institute of Design, Callahan was invited to teach photography by Lazslo Moholy-Nagy, one of my favorite artists to have come out of the Bauhaus and also an influential photographer in America. Primarily drawn to urban subjects, Callahan said in 1991, “I think I’ve photographed the same things all my life, buildings and grasses and people walking.” His photographic works become extremely personal and intimate for many reasons, in part due to his wife Eleanor, his muse for more than 15 years.

Harry Callahan (American, 1912-1999), Eleanor, about 1947, Photograph, gelatin silver print, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Gift of Barbara and Gene Polk, © The Estate of Harry Callahan, courtesy Pace/MacGill, NY, Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Callahan also once said that if one chooses one’s subject selectively, the camera intuitively writes the poetry. Eleanor Knapp, as the subject for some of his most iconic works was arguably that poetry not written, but emphasized intuitively by the camera. One of the most striking images in the exhibition and one of Callahan’s most famous works is Eleanor, Port Huron, 1954 which juxtaposes the soft, sensuous curves of the human body with the lush, hard and almost raspy edges of the landscape that envelopes Eleanor’s body. Callahan’s ability to intensify his subjects by placing them in the vastness of the geographical landscape is emphasized in most of his images depicting Eleanor.

In spite of Callahan’s expansive career, the exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts is small and somewhat uninspiring. Over the past few years, several museums have organized exhibitions of Callahan’s works, but an entire retrospective of his influential career has yet to surface. Many works in the exhibition have the power to remind us as spectators of how small we are in context to our surroundings.

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