Daily Picture Show

Celebrating Harry Callahan, A Founding Father Of Photo Classes

One hundred years ago approximately, Harry Callahan was born. The year was 1912, and the most popular camera was probably the Kodak Brownie — more or less a cardboard box. As Callahan was growing up, fine-art photography as we know it today was still in its nascency. And fine-art photography professors didn't really exist yet, at least not in abundance.

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One hundred years later approximately, i.e. yesterday, I had a conversation with Henry Horenstein, currently a photography professor at Rhode Island School of Design and once one of Callahan's students. "There were people who instructed before him, but not too many," he says. "He spawned all these photographers and teachers." Horenstein included.

That's one of the major legacies left by Harry Callahan, who died in 1999: He was a pioneer of photography but also of photography instruction. This fall and through next March, a retrospective at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., is paying homage to Callahan, "whose highly experimental, visually daring and elegant photographs made him one of the most innovative artists of the 20th century," the museum's site reads.

Of the 100 or so photos on display, 34 are from a batch recently donated by the family — making the gallery a leading holder of Callahan's work.

What's so important about his photos? "He was quietly rebellious in his work," Horenstein explains. "Ansel Adams was kind of his mentor. He came from that traditional rocks-and-trees landscape world that ruled at the time ... [and] broke a way a little bit. He worked in higher contrast, so a lot of his photographs were just black-and-white and didn't have tonality."

Horenstein chose a Callahan photo as the cover of his book, an introductory manual to black-and-white photography. As he explains, the photo of trees in a snowy Chicago is almost literally just black and white — quite a departure from the nine tones of gray found in Ansel Adams' work, for example.

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Chicago, 1950

Harry Callahan/Estate of Harry Callahan/Pace/MacGill Gallery
Chicago, 1950

Chicago, 1950

Harry Callahan/Estate of Harry Callahan/Pace/MacGill Gallery

But that's all a bit technical. Many of the photos in the exhibition, and in Callahan's whole oeuvre, seem simple: portraits of his wife and daughter, street scenes, beaches and nudes. And isn't that the stroke of a master, after all — to make something complicated seem simple?

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