I grew up in Akron, Ohio which had a great library with a good selection of serious photography books. (They’ve since expanded the library even further.) A block away was the Akron Art Museum, which specialized in contemporary photography. (The Akron Art Museum has also enjoyed a large expansion in the past few years.)
Many hours were spent at both of these institutions as I absorbed all that I could about photography.
Of all the photographs in those many books, in those many exhibits, one body of photographs that stands out especially strong in my memory is that of Harry Callahan.
In the parade of modern photography you don’t often hear his name mentioned as an influence. You don’t often see his work exhibited. While known to people with a knowledge of photographic history he has, in the wider public consciousness, fallen through the cracks.
Why that is is hard to say. Unlike Ansel Adams he didn’t produce a body of work that is pleasing to a wide public (no matter Adams’s more serious intentions and, indeed, achievements). Unlike Weston he didn’t have a particularly exotic personal life with which to entrance the gallery going viewers. He often photographed on the streets in urban environments but his work is far away from the street photography genre of Henri Cartier-Bresson. No prostitutes lounging at windowsills for Callahan.
He did shoot nudes, many of them, nudes of his wife, Eleanor. While an attractive woman her body is perhaps too fleshy to sit comfortably on the wall next to images of Charis Wilson rolling down the sand dunes, too imperfect to inspire many fantasies of quitting one’s job and leaving for Mexico, for Yosemite, for anywhere.
Worse for Callahan, his work doesn’t fit into any one theme, any one genre, and as an ardent experimentalist his images fail to share a common “style” to help curators and viewers alike place his work in the pantheon.
His images of Eleanor, however, form the nucleus of a life’s work filled with the kind of image that shines in a way that is so uncommon today as to seem almost archaic–the deeply felt photograph.
Harry Callahan died in 1999. His wife, Eleanor, the brilliant subject of so many of his finest photographs, died today.