Eleanor Callahan died yesterday at a hospice in Atlanta.
That name may not mean much on its own until you realize she was the photographic muse for famed photographer Harry Callahan who one of the most innovative and influential photographers of the 20th century. The above photo of his wife, simply title–“Eleanor, Chicago” gives you a taste of the artist style, simple yet upon closer inspection very powerful.
I was able to see an original print of that photo and many others of Eleanor in the retrospective “Harry Callahan at 100,” at the National Gallery. The good news: if you are in the Washington, DC area you can see this show until March 4th.
The gallery was nearly empty as my friend and former photo editor Charles Kogod walked from room to room inspecting every one of the 100 photographs in the exhibit. At one point the security guard came over and said we were standing too close. The prints had that kind of power. First you were back at a normal distance and before you knew it you were pulled right up onto prints trying to figure out something about the image.
Like many, Callahan had no formal training as a photographer except for a few workshops. He started off with a “regular job” working as a shipping clerk in Detroit for Chrysler. He bought his first camera, a Rolleicord and joined the Chrysler Camera Club. Some of the photos in this exhibit were taken as he walked to or from his job at Chrysler.
Two things really stood out to me as I studied the photos that day. He has an amazing ability to work right up to the edge of the light. By that I mean he often had a shaft of light slicing through the image like a knife. The composition was amazing but it was the light that was making the photo special. The beam of daylight looked like it was 30 seconds from fading below the horizon and like magic; Callahan would have framed a person on the extreme edge of the frame crossing that light. No motordrive, no image editing, just amazing understating of the craft of photography.( see Eleanor and Barbara, Chicago, 1953)
A photograph that is “busy” is normally a bad thing. Except if you shoot it like Harry Callahan. The photo below is a great example of the second thing that he did so well. Create a photo that is very complicated, one where your eye doesn’t know where to look but at the same time so compelling that you can’t take your eyes off it. The photo below is the image that nearly got me in trouble with the museum guard because I wanted to be able to figure it out. I never did.( see Detroit 1943 below)
All images are © Estate of Harry Callahan
Special thanks to the National Gallery of Art,