Harry Callahan Eleanor & Barbara (1954)
Gelatin silver print 6.5 x 6.25 x 0.0
University Club of Chicago

Harry callahan eleanor and barbara 120

Harry Callahan’s (1912-1999) roughly fifty-year photography practice and teaching career left a permanent influence on American photography in the second half of the twentieth century. In Chicago art history, Callahan offers a catalogue of Chicago’s perpetually shifting landscapes and a reverberating influence as a leader in American photography for generations of artists.

Culling subjects from his idiosyncratic everyday surroundings, Callahan’s rich formal mastery and design show how endlessly innovative the everyday world around us can be.

In the early 1940s, while working for Chrysler Automotive, Callahan took interest in photography. As a member of the Chrysler Camera Club and the Detroit Photo Guild he took a photography workshop with Ansel Adams. Through Adams’ influence, Callahan felt empowered to photograph the everyday world around him and viewed photography as its own medium with distinct formal skills apart from other art practices.

Callahan found inspiration in Alfred Stieglitz and László Moholy-Nagy, and his subject matter often included nature, street scenes, his wife and child, and architecture. He worked with formal qualities, such as light and line, to transform familiar subjects into unfamiliar shapes and abstracted compositions.

At this time, abstract painting held center stage in the contemporary art world, with painters interested in making the surface of the canvas the primary subject, by removing any illusions of depth or space in the image. The formal quality of Callahan’s photography creates a complex dialogue that both aligns and differentiates his work with abstract painting at the time. In 1946, he became a teacher at the Institute of Design in Chicago.

By the early 1950s, Callahan, with the support of Edward Steichen, was exhibiting his work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. During this time, with feverish dedication, he photographed the personal bond of his wife, Eleanor, and their daughter, Barbara, including the intimacies of their lives, experiences, and bodies.

By the late 1960s, he shifted away from them, and his work became darker and more socially critical. Since the mid-1970s, he worked exclusively in color, but never strayed from his original interest in everyday subject matter. In 1978 his was the first photograph to represent the United States at the Venice Biennial.

 In 1996 he had a critical retrospective at the National Gallery of Art that toured the country’s major museums. After his passing, Callahan left behind more than 100,000 negatives and more than 10,000 proof prints.

Eleanor and Barbara is from a point in Callahan’s career when capturing the intimate relationship between his wife and child absorbed him.

In this composition, light pours in from the large window on the right side and illuminates traces of the simplicity to the room, which includes a heater, figures, and a bed. Eleanor lies across the bed as Barbara drapes over her body.

In the room’s simplicity, one finds Callahan’s mastery of light, texture, line, and composition. The light that cascades across the bed illuminates the top curves and lines of Eleanor’s body, which parallels the highlighted top edge of the mattress.

The light from the window also highlights the top surface of the radiator located directly underneath, which adds another slightly curved texture, much like the figure’s body, to the composition. This path of light leads the viewer further across the surface of the bed into the dark shadows on the left side of the composition. 

There, mostly in shadow, Barbara drapes herself vertically across her mother’s upper body. The unguarded intimacy of their positions reflects the uninhibited closeness of a mother and young child. Callahan created a linear harmony through Eleanor’s horizontal body, the light across the bed, the thin horizontal line of the radiator under the window, and the horizontal blinds. But, with her feet facing outward, Barbara’s vertical position cuts off that harmony, pulling the viewer’s attention away from the overall scene back to the intimate juxtaposition of these two figures.

In this, Callahan’s formally harmonious composition mirrors the emotional union of mother and child.

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