Harry Callahan by Agnès Sire
Legs/Stephan Brigidi by Harry Callahan
Great video on Harry Callahan, Click below:
I was not able to embed the video. Here are written notes.
I have been the curator at the foundation, Henri Cartier-Bresson for the past 7 years. It’s a foundation first dedicated to the work of HCB, but as he himself refused categorically to make it into a mausoleum, he wanted it to be an open door to all.
This exhibition started from a wish of Jean Luc Monterosso, the director of la M.E.P, to show it’s collection in the Parisian institutions during the Mois De La Photo in Paris. We chose Callahan. La Maison Europeanne de la Photographie has a beautiful collection, but with many pieces missing, so I went to the States to do some research, at the Museum of Modern Art of New York, and especially for Peter MacGill, the gallery owner who represents the Callahan estate; and on top, came finally a Belgium private collection which had a remarkable collection of the series ‘Women Lost in Thoughts’.
Callahan was very much against the story telling aspect in photography. He even went as far as to say he hated it, and it is surprising because he worked at a time of the golden age of the great magazines, which was back then a way to make a living for many photographers. He was working in the 40′s and 50′s. He was exempt from the army, so he could have filled the pages of magazines like Life, but he was absolutely not interested by it. He was doing photography because it was like a physical need for him, he had faith in this medium, but he refused every commission and he never did any commission.
Callahan is a photographer who is like a repetitive melody, he work, he photographs the city, nature and his wife and then starts again with the city, nature and his wife, changing everytime he got bored. But these are always the 3 themes that come back, and so not showing the 3 would have been a pity.We have entitled the exhibition, ‘Variations’. He used throughout his life the same 3 themes. He belongs to the category of the mirror photographers if we take as reference the exhibition of Szarkowski in 1978 called
Mirrors and Windows, meaning the difference between the photographers that are more interested in their inner world and those who are more interested by the window, by the outside world, and of course Callahan needed the outside world, but as he often said, he always refused the contact with people, and when he photographs them, they are always lost in their thoughts, and without being seen, he always refuses the dialogue with people.
I think he’s an obsessional, someone who gave an extreme interest to the print, and who photographed quite differently depending on his subjects. For example, when he started to photograph beaches towards the end of his life, he took a different distance, he put himself a bit further away from the forms and the lights and the small figures on the beaches, quite different from the pictures he took of people in the street in the late 50′s when he used to take pictures of people in the street without being noticed, as he would set up his camera focus to one metre, and as he was walking, he would take the pictures crossing path with people at the moment he thought they were just a metre away from him, so people never noticed he was taking their portrait, so they are truly stolen portraits, so these two attitudes, are very different. Now, whether it is nature or the city, he really enjoyed photographing close ups, like his close up of buildings, or the close up of the grass dancing in the wind in a field, but we never know where we are, it is a close-up of nature or a building, but it is quite difficult to recognize where they are from.
But with the photographs of Eleanor, it is a bit different, because as she is a theme that also crossed his life, and he changed from 24/36 to 4/5 inch to different formats to the square format, and we can see that in the pictures of Eleanor, and she is part of his life themes, she is part of his life, she is a form he can not do without, she is not a muse in the sense of a beautiful Ophelie that would pose for him. She is like one of his arms or legs. She is really here permanently. Legs, by the way of which we have quite a remarkable print here from the MOMA, a print very few have seen. This is a portrait of Stephan Brigidi. Callahan was old, he died 6 years later, but as you see he was still very handsome. He himself confessed, and Szarkowski talks about it in the text attached to the catalogue, that Callahan was drinking quite heavily and that alcohol was making him reflect on life, thoughts he thought were, very interesting…