Visiting with Harry Callahan

I have always thought of Harry Callahan as a cool photographer. Cool in the sense that he is cool in the way we talk about a great garment or a spectacular bit of design. But more important, he is cool in terms of how his images are composed. Unemotional and somehow distant. I don’t remember ever seeing anyone in a Callahan photograph smiling, nor any photographs that display a sense of humour. Some of my friends say it is because he trained as an engineer!

I have looked at Callahan books. Many books. I have seen individual prints in galleries, museums and at exhibitions, and at auction. My first experience with a full show was at La Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris. Yesterday.

The show blew me away. By way of background, Callahan received a grant and took a sabbatical. At the encouragement of Steichen, he left his comfort-zone in the northern US and departed for Europe. He spent the majority of this time in Aix-en-Provence, in the south of France. He stayed there for 10 months with his wife and son. The show comprises a selection of the photographs he made during that stay.

All the prints are small in size, the majority of the prints are perhaps 15 cm or 18 cm square (6 or 7 inches) or 16 cm x 24 cm (6 x 9 inches) for the 35mm. This is a size that I truly enjoy. You have to get your nose almost to the glass, often attracting great concern and nasty looks from the custodians, but I digress.

Firstly, the printing is what my wife would call delicious. Callahan printed these images in the early 1990s. His vibrant blacks and great tonal range almost invoke the papers that are sadly long gone. Secondly, there is a patience in these photographs. Each is composed perfectly, with nothing out of place. Perfect balance. Perfect texture. Perfect light.

Callahan has used the narrow streets of the medieval city to great advantage, looking for the sun low on the horizon in winter, causing wonderful intense shadows and capturing, usually a single figure, in the bright rays. This is Ray Metzker, but somehow more real and less about effect and more about the moment.

His landscapes are from the area around the old city, and his architectural photographs are not the elegant villas, chateaux or even the wonderful cathedral, but rather the simple straight lines of houses in the side streets, with no ornamentation, save the odd drainpipe, fitted tightly into each frame.

Eleanor is of course also there, but mostly in double exposures with various landscapes. I am not a big fan of double or multiple exposures, but that does not take away from my overall experience.

You can do this show in a matter of minutes. It is basically a single room. But you can also linger, as I did, and get your nose real close. This is a true master at work.
For those in Paris: Go see the show. For those that are not: Get the book: Harry Callahan: French Archives.

Harbel, Paris

See more on my website: harbel.com

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *