Thursday, May 20, 2010

Callahan - The Mystic Guru of Post-Modern Photography

Harry Callahan [1912-1999], occupies a unique position in the history of post-War American photography. A pedagogue who spent much of his career teaching, he nevertheless refrained from making aesthetic pronouncements, and wrote essentially nothing about his art, leaving his imagery to speak for itself. Each of Callahan's images is unique. Rather than repeat himself, he insisted on making each image a solitary, iconic statement--something, or someone, seen in a self-contained, self-sufficient way. 
In addition, he tended to see subject matter in a very personal manner, as if the photographic act were a kind of prayer, or intimate statement, conceived within the compass of his immediate family. Spiritually, his work defines him as a disciple of Edward Weston's, though the sentiment in his work is much warmer, more affectionate, more personal than EW's.

The most memorable aspect of Callahan's work is the series of images made of his wife and daughter, taken over decades--either nudes, or within larger landscapes, or as multiple exposures. These images constitute a unique record of passionate devotion, classical in its dignity. 

Though prolific in his investigations and restless search for imagery--he left 10,000 negatives in his archive at death--he was extremely selective in choosing which images to show--determined to limit the possible range of meaning(s) which his work might suggest. If the images which a photographer chooses are what we know of the process by which he "sees," photographic art was, for Callahan, a kind of deliberate memory-making, in which the mind of the artist controls what is known and understood of his vision.   

Callahan's work is characterized not just by a highly unique vision, but a highly eclectic range of modes of image-making. Starting out as a traditional, large-format, view camera perfectionist, whose prints have a gorgeous finish and solidly grounded composition, he would eventually move on to make candid imagery caught in busy cities (reminiscent of Walker Evans), nervous multiple-image overlays, intense abstractions of naturalistic detail, busy collage constructions, and reductive existential studies of wires, grass, and sky. 

I read once that a critic thought that Callahan was like a naive mute who worked with complete intuitive consciousness, hardly aware of the potential power and deep meaning of his work. I suppose this might be possible, but my suspicion is that Callahan belongs to that quiet tribe of artists for whom words--argument, speculation and extended ratiocination--serve no immediate purpose. Such artists need only the materials of their craft to produce their work. 

Ultimately, no artist should be required to justify his/her work through aesthetic statements or defenses. Their work should speak for itself; let the critics decide what it means, or whether it qualifies as serious or successful effort.
Photography is, for the most part, a non-verbal art form. Attempts are often made to combine poetry, or prose, with photographic imagery. In my previous post on the work of Wright Morris, I noted a successful exception to the rule that photographs and narrative--like oil and water--don't easily mix. 
I also recall reading an interview of Callahan, in which he remarked that when he went to Europe, on a traveling fellowship, he was stymied, because, as he said, "[He] couldn't find any subject-matter--everything was perfectly organized and "photogenic"--there was nothing left for [him]!" This strikes me as a quintessentially American reaction. Callahan's dry, arid studies imply the overpowering emptiness of American spaces, and the clarity and directness of original visions of space. Charles Olson felt the defining characteristic of the American consciousness was space, that American poets and artists [and playwrights and architects and composers, one might add] confronted their media in a fresh way, seen as if for the first time, without the furniture of traditional stage-craft.               


Looking at any typical Callahan image, I think immediately of the work of Robert Creeley, a narrow apprehension of the possibility of any given occasion, an insistence upon the fewest elaborations or clutter, a concentration upon the simplest fact being considered. 
Looking at the image of the leaf on the ice snow (above) one is aware that though the leaf implies the tree, and the snow a whole landscape covered in white, it is the singularity of this moment, of this one leaf, its perfectly crisp clarity, a material immanence, held, saved, insisted upon, that Callahan's eye sees.      


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