Review: Harry Callahan


Book Reviews, Photobooks


At the time of this writing, a major Harry Callahan retrospective is taking place at Hamburg’s Deichtorhallen. In conjunction with the show, there is a catalog, Harry Callahan. If your birthday is coming up, here is something to hint your friends or family about. Everybody else might want to take note for this year’s Christmas, or just buy the book.

I rarely enjoy catalogs produced from such shows. I must have written about this before. Often enough, these publications are utterly tedious affairs, huge tomes with hundreds of pictures and scores of borderline unreadable essays - essentially produced for the purposes of study by academics more than for the general public. Thankfully, Harry Callahan is not one of those. Instead, it’s a very simple, very well produced, and very elegant book, and the essays are a pleasure to read.

The book is organized chronologically, which initially came as a bit of a surprise to me. I suppose organizing things by theme would have been more obvious. But presenting Callahan’s photographs in the order in which they were produced opens a very simple look at the artist and especially his interest in the same set of themes he explored throughout his career: Life of and in the city, Nature abstracted, and Eleanor, his wife.

The first colour photographs appear early (1943), and they re-appear frequently throughout the book. I was somewhat familiar with Callahan’s work, of course, I knew all the various famous photographs; but the ones I had never seen really opened up a new world for me. Callahan possessed an immense clarity of vision. At the same time he was unafraid to re-explore something or to find something new.

I suspect the artist would be baffled by some of the discussions in today’s photoland about everything being photographed already. If anything, for that reason alone this retrospective might come as a timely reminder what photography really is about. It’s not about applying the rules of the market to this form of art, relentlessly chasing after the new like a dog will run after the stick its owner throws somewhere. It’s not about spending a lot of time trying to get people interested in fixed projects, shot over three months and then promoted for the rest of the year.

Instead, photography, the art form, is about the photographer’s vision, about her or his willingness to explore to then to create from and with it. With its plethora of incredibly stunning photographs - some of the colour work almost brought me to tears - Harry Callahan not “just” presents the accomplishments of an amazing photographer. It also re-affirms what photography truly is about: vision.

Highly recommended.

Harry Callahan; photographs by Harry Callahan; essays by Dirk Luckow, Peter MacGill, Sabine Schnakenberg, Julian Cox; 256 pages; Kehrer; 2013