Harry Callahan

Article excerpt

Sarah Greenough. Harry Callahan. Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1996. Distr. Bulfinch Press/Little, Brown, Boston. 200 pp.; 17 color ills., 116 tritone. $50.00; $29.95 paper

Exhibition schedule: National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., March 3-May 19,1996; Philadelphia Museum of Art, September 14-November 24, 1996; High Museum of Art, Atlanta, February 11-April 6,1997; Detroit Institute of Arts, April 26-July 6, 1997; Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, August 2-September 28,1997

The Harry Callahan show, which opened at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., offers a new interpretation of one of the most important formalist and experimentalist American photographers at work since 1940. The exhibition organizer, Sarah Greenough, approaches Callahan chronologically, which she says other exhibitions and catalogues have not. While her claim overlooks exhibitions and catalogues that have sequenced Callahan's photographs roughly in the order they were made, she is right that no one previously has done so to discern their stylistic development. Instead, earlier writers either discussed a single category of picture within Callahan's oeuvre (his wife, Eleanor, or the city, for example) or attempted to characterize Callahan overall, without making strong chronological distinctions.

Greenough's chronological structure accomplishes two things. First, she is able to construct a stylistic progression for the work. What she finds is that Callahan moved from experimentation, in work he did in Detroit between 1941 and 1946, to what he called "seeing photographically," in photographs he made from 1946 to 1961, years he taught at the Institute of Design, in Chicago (p. 44). The alternation of order and chaos in this work, Greenough says, then gave way to a "distinct edginess" that began when he returned to Chicago from a sabbatical in France in 1957-58 (p. 51). That edginess became even more marked when he moved to Providence in 1961 to teach at the Rhode Island School of Design. Since 1977, when Callahan retired from academic life, his work, much of it in color, has become simpler. In a wall label in the final room of the exhibition, Greenough claims that these late works are "less about their nominal subjects . . . and more about the act of seeing itselfabout observation and contemplation."

The stylistic changes that Greenough characterizes seem credible enough (although I would suggest that the "edginess" she identifies first appeared in France, in pictures of town centers made ominous by heavy shadows), but more important is her identification of Callahan's ongoing practice of reworking subjects he had photographed years earlier to see if he could show through photography his intervening "growth and development as a person" (p. 44). By identifying this process, Greenough posits a reciprocity between Callahan's life and his photography that has been absent from more formalist analyses of his work. It also leads her to give greater emphasis to the role of process in Callahan's work than have previous writers. She writes that as "an artist who is more interested in the process than the product, who works through the medium to discover and ultimately know and understand both himself and his world, Callahan does not think in terms of creating photographic masterpieces, singular and complete unto themselves" (p. 9).

Given this emphasis on the importance that process over product has for Callahan, it is disappointing that the curator has composed the exhibition almost exclusively from previously published photographs. For Callahan, finished prints are merely static artifacts, necessary products that meet the needs of curators and book designers. He has made many other photographs, both variants of well-known images and others from unpublished projects, from which an exhibition could be drawn.

The only exception is Greenough's welcome inclusion of a dozen or so unpublished early works, mostly produced before Callahan moved to Chicago in 1946. …