“The difference between the casual impression and the intensified image is about as great as that separating the average business letter from a poem,” said Harry Callahan in 1964. “If you choose your subject selectively — intuitively — the camera can write poetry.”

How Callahan made the camera write poetry is the subject of Harry Callahan: The Photographer at Work, an exhibition of roughly 120 prints and archival materials, which is up at the Art Institute of Chicago until September 24. Presenting much that is new, the show sheds light on the artist’s methods and personal history.

Unremarkable as a young man, Callahan discovered photography at the age of 26 and in less than a decade found ways of working, chose photographic subjects, and launched experiments that would continue for the next sixty years.

Callahan’s photography is exploratory rather than evolutionary. He chose a subject, photographed it for awhile, left it, did other things, and then returned to it, usually from a changed perspective. Chronology is of little importance to understanding Callahan and the Art Institute divides up the show topically, according to the three subjects that he photographed: nature, buildings, and people.

Callahan never completed college or studied photography in the classroom. In 1938, he was working at the Chrysler Company in Detroit, Michigan, joined the Chrysler Photo Club, and learned camera basics from a friend. He soon became dissatisfied with hobby photography and the sentimental pictorialism that club members favored. Wanting something more, he found it late in 1941 when the photographer Ansel Adams lectured at the club and—as Callahan later told it—“set me free.”

Adams told the club to view photography in its own terms—not as would-be painting—and within its own limitations. A photograph should be “a clean, sharp, highly detailed description of the external world within a carefully delineated, continuous tonal range,” he stated. Photographing simple things, such as nature at our feet, is just as valid as creating spectacular images, Adams added. He taught Callahan how to make prints and, above all, inspired him to become a photographic artist.

In 1946, Callahan began teaching photography at Chicago’s Institute of Design (ID), which was then directed by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, the Hungarian Modernist photographer and painter. Moholy, who encouraged formal experimentation, became Callahan’s second great mentor. Basically, Callahan merged Adams’ purism with Moholy’s experimentalism to create a new, radically inventive kind of photography. He would choose a subject, such as nature or city street life, photograph it in a variety of ways, and then experiment with extreme contrast, double exposure, all-white and all-black prints, and much else. His images are cool, often tough, and he never presses a personal agenda upon the viewer.

The Art Institute exhibition shows how this worked out in practice. In 1948, for example, Callahan photographed plants in snow, responding to Adams’ demand for “something real.” Unhappy with his perfectly honorable print, he put it aside for a time, and then, in rebellion, printed the negative at high contrast to get a fresh image that hovers between figuration and abstraction. He devised similar strategies to photograph patterns in nature, such as light on waves, and even did time exposures with a moving flashlight in darkness, following Moholy’s example.

Not all experiments succeed and this was true for Callahan. One of his most famous sequences shows faces of women pedestrians in downtown Chicago. Callahan, who spent as much time as he could out of doors with camera in hand, decided to photograph women, failed several times to get anything satisfactory, and finally realized that he wanted to show women lost in thought as they walked along. The Art Institute exhibition includes a proof sheet with numerous, very uneven images of heads from which Callahan selected the best. He never cropped images in the darkroom and the fact that many heads are partly cut off at the edges—or shot at odd angles—suggests that he followed his intuition, experimenting constantly as he worked.

It’s impossible to imagine Callahan without Eleanor, his wife. He photographed her repeatedly, indoors and out, nude and clothed, over about 15 years. These images, whose true subject is married love, rank among the most moving photographs ever made.

Seen outdoors, Eleanor is a small figure in a large empty landscape, either alone or with the Callahans’ daughter. She never smiles or postures, but is just there and he records her without comment. The nudes are intimate without being sexual. Callahan always respects Eleanor’s privacy. She is completely trusting, perfectly self-confident, and at peace. There is no way that such images could be made without a strong, enduring bond between photographer and subject.

Callahan did some of his most ingenious experimentation with the images of Eleanor. The Art Institute show includes proof sheets of nudes with geometric patterns double exposed upon them. In another nude, Eleanor’s body is seen at a distance in a field of black. The exhibition includes his negative, which shows that she was posing in their large, sparsely furnished apartment—and that he printed the image in high contrast.

This is the first major exhibition to come from the Callahan archive at the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona in Tucson. We hope for more such exhibitions, equally beautiful and absorbing, in years to come.

Anecdotes: Callahan the Man

Irene Siegel, the painter and photographer, shared her memories of Callahan with us. Siegel met Callahan in 1954, when she took his photo class at the ID. A year later, she married Arthur Siegel, the photographer and Callahan’s colleague at the ID (she was 18 years younger) and saw the Callahans “almost daily” for a period of years.

As Siegel tells it, the photo world and the ID were “very small” in the Fifties—and many people did not take photography seriously as an art form. Everybody knew everybody in the photo world and important artists like Ansel Adams, Weegee, and Edward Weston visited Chicago often and sometimes made use of a friend’s darkroom. ID people, including Harry, drank “lots of whiskey” at parties.

There were no photo galleries in those days, few shows, and no money to be made as an art photographer. A sale was a major event. Both Harry and Arthur did commercial photography to make ends meet. Eleanor worked as a secretary throughout the Callahans’ years in Chicago.

Eleanor’s sister was a secretary at the Museum of Modern Art and she helped make the connection with Edward Steichen that led to Callahan’s exhibition there in 1964. “Harry’s show at MOMA was a big event,” Siegel says. He “exhibited more than the others” and defended himself by acting like “an ordinary guy” when people over-intellectualized his work.

Callahan had “no female followers, only guys,” Siegel remembers. This was “not really discrimination,” because boys grow up liking mechanical things and learning how to fix them, while girls do not. Cameras were “very junky” then, requiring constant “fiddling” and repair. Arthur (Siegel) and Harry talked photography “all the time,” but their conversations about the latest lenses, enlargers, filters and the like meant nothing to Irene who was a painter then. She thinks that Callahan “got the idea” of experimentation after he arrived at the ID in 1946 and says that his “most haunting photos” are those that show Eleanor coming out of the water.

On June 29, the Art Institute of Chicago had a panel discussion of Harry Callahan featuring the photographers Joseph Jachna, Kenneth Josephson, Lewis Kostiner, Irene Siegel, and Joseph Sterling. All were former Callahan students at either the ID or the Rhode Island School of Design.

The speakers recalled how different Callahan was from Aaron Siskind, who also taught photography at the ID. Callahan was happily married to Eleanor and a kind of homebody, while Siskind had two or three wives (one seemed to be drunk all the time) and numerous amours.

Callahan was an artist type who did not talk technique in the classroom, looked rapidly at student prints, and got straight to the point in conversation. He had a simple, sensitive way of dealing with people and students learned to look for non-verbal signs from him. Siskind was an intellectual, who delivered opinions, sometimes caustic, but only when asked.

Students revered Callahan and Siskind because both men worked “like dogs.” Everyone knew that Callahan spent much time taking photographs outdoors, but students rarely encountered him on the street and they almost never saw his work. At a party in Callahan’s apartment, nobody saw any photos until someone looked in the closet and found them piled up there. Callahan once showed some photographs, but he placed them on a table and kept viewers at a distance. He had no system for cataloging negatives and simply put them in a heap marked CHICAGO.

“It’s interesting,” says Irene Siegel, “how connected the photographers still are to Harry and his work. “Painters outgrow their teachers, but all these years later, the photographers still worship Harry.”

— Victor M. Cassidy