Callahan’s capacity for abstraction and introspection is able to transform small blades of grass in the snow into true discoveries. «Photography’s wonderful because you can start with one idea but get lost on something else, and that’s where the big thing happens ». This is where the photographer resides.
Harry M. Callahan was born in Detroit in 1912 and lived an average life until he bought himself a Rolleicord 120 in 1938. At this point, an intuitive and methodical photographer was born who would produce astoundingly poetic images.
Callahan became a member of the Detroit Photo Guild in 1940, where he met Arthur Siegel who introduced him to experimental photography and also became a constant influence on his career. One year later he began to work with a 9×12 Linhof Technika that was lighter to handle. However, possibly influenced by the preciseness of Ansel Adams‘s work, Callahan moved to a 20×25 format at the same time as making contact sheets.
A trip to New York in 1945 would prove decisive for him: this is where he met all the major photographers of the time (Berenice Abbott, Helen Levitt, Lisette Model and Paul Strand ). He also learned about the work of Eugène Atget and visited a major retrospective of Stuart Davis at the MoMA. The influence of the latter on him is such that he went on to develop a lifelong work which he would constantly return to, torn signs, where he photographed the fronts of buildings in Chicago and the effect of the passage of time.
Callahan is a monk-artist. Photography is his religion because it takes the place of the faith he had in his youth and Szarkowski explains it like this: «The cool and distanced eloquence of Callahan’s work is presumably not only a formal matter. His pictures do not describe, but embody a world of moral value, a world aspiring to perfect order. ».
In 1964 the magazineMinicam Photography publishes his work for the first time. Moholy-Nagy (whom he met through Arthur Siegel) hires him to give classes at the Institute of Design in Chicago, and this is how he came into contact with the New Bauhaus school, with whom he shared the notion of photography as artistic expression and the desire to be experimental with it.
One year later 750 Studio Gallery in Chicago holds his first individual exhibition. He meets Edward Steichen. The latter will go on to include him in the exhibition entitled In and Out of Focus (1948) and in the vast The Family of Man (1955) exhibition. In 1962 Steichen wants to exhibit Callahan and Robert Frank‘s work, this time in the final exhibition from the Diogenes with a camera project. Frank refused to accept this title and the exhibition ended up being called Photographs by Harry Callahan and Robert Frank. However, Steichen’s stamp on the exhibition was such that Callahan himself declared that «Steichen always makes Steichen exhibitions».
1950 becomes an important year again. He is named director of the photography department of the Institute of Design, he carries out two short films on 16mm, Motions and People walking on the Street and his daughter Barbara is born.
The Graham Foundation Award enables him to move to France, where he remains until July 1958. In 1964 he has his first major monographic exhibition, Photographs, Harry Callahan by El Mochuelo Gallery, (Santa Barbara) and from this moment on he receives all manner of distinctions culminating in the acquisition of his entire archive by the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, Arizona. In 1977 he leaves the teaching world to devote himself fully to photography and to travel with his family. Following the retrospective of his black-and-white photography organized by the MoMA, he then works only in color, something which he had spent many years experimenting with (taking photos and printing them using the dye transfer) process). He was chosen to represent the United States at the 1978 Venice Biennal and one year later he became a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Science. As well as receiving an achievement award from the Academy of Fine Arts in Chicago (1992) he also received the Edward Mac Dowell Medal and the National Medal of Arts a year later.
He died on 15 March 1999 in Atlanta.
«I think nearly every artist continually wants to reach the edge of nothingness – the point where you can’t go any further» he wrote. Callahan pushed photography to abstraction, until it became a mere thought: today he turns this reflection back on us.