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“Harry Callahan”

to May 19

In an uncharacteristically tender moment, Alberto Giacometti said that the adventure of marriage lay in seeing something strange and new each day in the face of the same person. Giacometti, of course, was a pig; devoted to whoring in the classily detached fashion of many Old World modernists, he succeeded chiefly in making his wife miserable. One doubts whether Annette Giacometti in fact cared to show her husband a distinct strain of anguish every morning.

But Harry Callahan, a gentle, unassuming family man who has lived his entire life away from art-world capitals, teaching and quietly making some of the 20th century’s most formally inventive and emotionally communicative photographs, not only attains the marital aspirations of the sculptor’s better nature, he renders them visible. And without calculation he extends them to the world beyond, making a bride of the seen.

Callahan’s is an empirical eye, constantly looking around and grappling with whatever it encounters. The artist learned to see by learning to photograph, letting the pictures hone his vision. And he has produced useful pictures, products of a sensibility eager to share the discovery that visual awakening—not just to art but to the world of appearances—is a kind of revelation.

It is not uncommon for young artists at the dawn of their maturity to display a playful, fresh sense of form rooted in the visual exploration of their immediate, often urban, surroundings. Ellsworth Kelly’s late-’40s/early-50’s work from France, seen in a 1992 National Gallery show, shares a sense of formal discovery, of raw compositional rightness, with Callahan pictures such as those made in Highland Park, Mich., in 1941-42, of lines of people seen from a distance, either ascending stairs or waiting for a bus in front of a water-streaked wall. Most germane are the preparatory photographs Kelly made when walking around Paris: stair-rail shadows fragmented by a flight of steps, a row of window shades pulled down unevenly across the front of a building.

Kelly, of course, eventually succumbed to overrefinement, producing a couple of decades of perfect but thoroughly expected work. What is impressive about Callahan is that he has sustained his youthful understanding of the visual world over a 50-year career. Pictures made in Ansley Park in Atlanta, Ga., in 1991, of tree branches meeting overhead—or even more strikingly, defining a network of slim voids between one another—are every bit as surprising as the dancing lines of Weeds in Snow (1943) or the descending-triplet rhythm of isolated leaf clusters in Multiple Exposure Trees, Detroit (c. 1942).

Although it was a commonplace that modernist expression aspired to the condition of music, most of Callahan’s pictures, even when quite abstract, are so fundamentally visual—and actual—that they thwart the usual sonic metaphors. The patterns established in the multiple-exposure street scenes shot in Detroit in 1943 are neither harmonious nor cacophonous, but busy and dense, both redolent of Cubist simultaneity and true to the flux of the crowded urban scene.

The temperamental opposite to Callahan’s intuitive, improvisational method can be seen in early photographs by Paul Strand, in which the ordinary is made striking when a specific point-of-view is mandated: A back yard is seen from above—canted, wedged into the frame as if Strand were grasping the viewer by the jaw, forcing him or her to look at it just so. Perfect but rigid, the composition would collapse if altered by a fraction of an inch. Callahan’s photographs are more elastic; implicit in his method is the possibility that things could have appeared slightly differently because, in fact, they are always rearranging themselves.

Callahan explains that he took up photography about the same time he gave up religion but admits that photography came to serve functions similar to his abandoned Methodism, even saying that “a picture is like a prayer.” Such a quasi-Protestant embrace of the visual arises from a need to balance a view of the world as something to be transcended with the belief that creation is good. (Think of the sun paintings of Edvard Munch or the garden of Howard Finster.) Ascetic pessimism is tempered by an ardor just earthly enough to smack of idolatry. What someone so tempted seeks is merely to love it here.

Callahan’s photographs of his wife, Eleanor, whom he married in 1936, create a picture of the artist as a man whose love for his wife is total (the photographer speaks of seeing her image even when the two are apart).

Callahan takes in the sight of Eleanor’s body not with the tense acquisitiveness of Alfred Stieglitz—whose nude pictures of Georgia O’Keeffe derived their formal inspiration from his impressive collection of European pornography—and not with the brittle standoffishness of other modernists’ observances of their difficult loves, but with the delight of a husband ever amazed by the crook of his wife’s elbow, by the small of her back, the splay of her breasts, the swell of her stomach. One imagines him a curious, gentle, surprisable lover, pleased to find, year after year, still another undiscovered way to hold her—to rest his nose beneath her jawbone, to burrow his knuckles into the hollow of her knee, to cup her shoulder blade in his palm, to press his eyes shut against her neck.

One robust but exquisite photo of Eleanor taken in Highland Park in 1942 pictures her from midthigh to just below her breasts, lying on her side. The small, smooth, recessed, three-cornered shadow of her navel plays against the large, dark, curly, raised triangle of her pubic hair. The curve of her belly tugs against the dip between her hips. The picture, formally engendered by Callahan’s visual and tactile familiarity with the curves of his wife’s body, comes to symbolize the warmth and comfort he finds in her physical embrace.

Callahan’s vision (it would be wrong to smear it with the jargon of the oft-theorized male “gaze”) is remarkable for its lack of antagonism. The adversaries that most often populate contemporary “relationships” are not to be found on either side of his camera. Not that such a condition constitutes a stance, or a conscious refusal. It’s simply that for Eleanor and Harry Callahan, it would seem that the now-thoroughly banalized “battle between the sexes” has little importance.

This is not to say that what transpires through the lens between the Callahans is somehow not up-to-date. Rather it is dateless, and it is in this quality that the spiritual dimension of the pictures of Eleanor obtains. Without scolding or mystification (or even narrative), they incarnate distinctly marital love. If such an idea seems a poor fit to our times, the pictures stand not as a rebuke but a counterexample, a reminder of the existence of true weddedness for a culture that has thoughtlessly dispensed with it out of suspicion of the vulnerability and dependence it demands.

The Eleanor photographs acknowledge beauty not as an idealization of form but as a configuration of the real—the way a place, person, or thing describes itself to the world merely by presenting its unsimplified, unmediated image—and it is this acknowledgment that unifies Callahan’s oeuvre, regardless of subject matter. Later pictures of Eleanor bridge the gap between inside and outside, home and street, portrait and landscape and city scene. She poses alone or with the Callahans’ daughter Barbara, in the park or in the lake, naked or clothed, close up or in the distance.

Although Callahan has taken many different types of pictures throughout his career, even his most self-consciously manipulated images—those using multiple exposures, collage, or camera movement, for example—are shaped by the same experienced eye responsible for his perceptive straight photography. He does misstep, as in a now-dated (and therefore too obvious) multiple exposure that vignettes Eleanor against the shape of an egg, but such instances are rare.

Reading Callahan’s comments about his art is both uncannily satisfying and oddly superfluous. Customarily, artists’ statements are poorly framed obfuscations that must be decoded before they can be used to elucidate intent. The viewer must go back and forth between word and image, reinterpreting each in terms of the other, circling in on what the work means. But each of Callahan’s explications—of photography as adventure, of the importance of the body of work over the individual picture, of the embrace of experimentation but the rejection of it for its own sake, of the primacy of the visual over narrative—is exactly right for his pictures, and plainly inherent in them.

What ultimately astonishes me is how well Callahan understands his own intentions and how completely fulfilled they are in his work. For him now to be near the end of his life, 83 years old and ailing, must pain him somewhat less than it would the average person. Because for all his outward commonness, Harry Callahan set out to discover the world not knowing what would turn up, but with the faith that it would always be quite a wonderful thing.

Normally, it is reasonable to assume that the public has little interest in events staged for the peculiar benefit of the press. A clear exception, though, was the National Gallery’s Feb. 26 breakfast at which Callahan was joined by his family—so central to his life and art—as his life’s work received public confirmation.

After the official presentations were made and a characteristically plain-spoken statement was read for Callahan by his daughter, the artist addressed a single question concerning which body of work, black-and-white or color, he now preferred.

His quavering, stroke-scarred voice, barely audible, struggled to form each syllable:

I think that you should do all kinds of photography. I don’t think there should be any limitations.CP