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    Chicago's Greatest Artist?

    Date: 2 Jul 2006 | | Views: 8032

    Art Institute show lays bare Harry Callahan's creative processs

    It cannot be said too often: Harry Callahan was the greatest visual artist who ever grew to maturity in Chicago.

    It has had to be said again and again because even now, seven years after the photographer's death and decades after he was recognized by the rest of the world, his is not a name that immediately springs to mind whenever Chicagoans start ranking artists who have worked in the city.

    Yet no contemporary favorite -- not Ivan Albright or H.C. Westermann or Leon Golub or Ed Paschke -- had as long a history of admiring viewers beyond Chicago as Callahan. And no Chicago pioneer -- neither painter Manierre Dawson nor sculptor John Storrs -- achieved the scholarly consensus that set them, as it did with Callahan, among the most accomplished masters of their medium.

    Callahan is up there with Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand, Edward Weston and Ansel Adams. His work has been collected by every major art museum and has been seen in several retrospectives. But while most Chicagoans have heard of Adams, ask about Callahan and you're likely to hear only about the movie cop played by Clint Eastwood, suggesting that special measures need to be taken.

    Such measures are in "Harry Callahan: The Photographer at Work," a pathbreaking solo exhibition that has come to the museum (through Sept. 24) that gave him his first show, the Art Institute of Chicago. It, too, is a retrospective, but as it's drawn from Callahan's enormous archive at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, Ariz., it explores his work as has no other exhibition. In the words of curator Britt Salvesen, it attempts to "reconstruct as best we can the creative process that led to his photographic breakthroughs."

    With vintage prints as well as negatives, proofsheets, reproductions and Callahan's sole surviving film, the show establishes how the largely self-taught photographer hit upon all his themes and subjects within the first five years of working, then with drive and discipline went back to them over the next six decades, finding the fresh and new through the exercise of deep intuition.

    Early on, Callahan began to think of himself as an artist, and he never wavered. But like few others, his career emphasizes the work required to create a work of art, for he shot continually and took for granted that he seldom would achieve the balance, precision and economy that in his terms made a good picture. His hallmark was a simplicity that made extraordinary the everyday, but no matter how much sweat it required, the results were never overheated. As John Szarkowski observes in the show's catalog, "Of all the notable photographers of the twentieth century, surely Harry Callahan is the coolest."

    He was also the most laconic, describing his interests only as "nature, buildings, and people." The works reproduced on these pages follow the show's groupings, seeking to reveal something of Callahan's transcendent exploration and expression.

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    A large subset of Callahan's "people" pictures is devoted to his wife, Eleanor, who appears in everything from studio nudes to multiple exposures and images that playfully draw upon the look of snapshots. So it is tempting to see the series in the light of Alfred Stieglitz's extended photo portrait of Georgia O'Keeffe or Gaston Lachaise's drawings and sculptures of his wife, Isabel. Their erotic and mythic components are, however, largely absent from Callahan's pictures, though as is shown by negatives for alternatives to his most famous Eleanor treatment, he was ultimately less interested in showing her dramatically or in movement than as a tranquil nymph at one with her fluid environment.


    A 1941 encounter with Ansel Adams freed Callahan to think of himself as an artist. However, his "Weed Study" (1948) tends toward strongly contrasted black and white, without all the tone and texture that made a picture "classic" for Adams. Its abstract, almost calligraphic quality Callahan had explored differently in "Sunlight on Water" (1943), and it would recur often, always fresh, as in the late "Ansley Park, Atlanta" (1991). Similarly, Callahan approached and reapproached scenes at water's edge. He had worked in color since the 1940s but did not show the results as prints until the 1978 Venice Biennale. The subdued "Cape Cod" dates from the following year.


    Callahan came from Detroit to teach at Chicago's Institute of Design in 1946. The Art Institute opened its photography department in 1951 with an exhibition that presented his work in seven series. The first two were "architectural patterns" and "textural details of buildings and streets"; the fourth was "experiments in multiple exposure." The top ones persisted in his art, as is indicated by these images from the late ཤs to the late ྂs. They are not photographs designed to flatter an architect's work. The three that show more than one building -- from circa 1950, 1976 and 1979 -- are clearly as keen on the spaces in between the structures as the buildings themselves.


    In the 1940s in Detroit, Callahan used a small portable camera to produce images of pedestrians without them knowing; his prints, scarcely larger than the 35-millimeter frame, he mounted to re-establish a flat horizon line. Returning to the theme around 1950 in Chicago -- as he would again later, in color -- he took hundreds of exposures and printed the few successes as 8-by-10-inch pictures or larger. Here he shows city people in a new, tough kind of picture, neither a portrait nor a spatial study. When he took in more pedestrians plus part of the environment, as in "Wabash Avenue, Chicago" (1958), the result had perhaps more in common with an Alberto Giacometti "plaza" sculpture than an ordinary street photograph.

    By Alan G. Artner Tribune art critic, www.chicagotribune.com

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