Harry Callahan Aix-en-Provence (1958)
Gelatin silver photograph 8.0 x 6.33 x 0.0
University Club of Chicago

Harry callahan aix en provence france 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.

         Harry Callahan’s (1912-1999) roughly fifty-year photography practice left a permanent influence on American photography in the second half of the twentieth century. In Chicago art history, Callahan’s work offers a catalogue of Chicago’s perpetually shifting landscapes and a reverberating influence in American photography for generations of artists. Culling subjects from his idiosyncratic everyday surroundings, his 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. Inspired by Alfred Stieglitz and László Moholy-Nagy, his subject matter often included nature, street scenes, and his wife and child. He worked with formal qualities, such as light and line, to transform familiar subjects into unfamiliar 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 taught at the Institute of Design in Chicago. By the 1950s, Callahan was exhibiting his work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. During this time, with feverish dedication, he photographed the personal bond and intimacies of his wife, Eleanor, and their daughter, Barbara. 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. 

Aix-en-Provence (c. 1958) is from a mid-point in Callahan’s career when he was primarily photographing his family, but also exploring nature and composing more abstract compositions. Photographed while vacationing in the south of France, in this composition Callahan isolates one plant with detailed focus in a non-descript solid black background. The seemingly simplistic image showcases Callahan’s expertise with formal qualities such as light, line, and shape to create an image that vacillates between the plant subject and an abstract composition. The plant harbors a harmonious balance between linear tension and organic curvilinear shape. The vertical plant trunk emerges from the bottom edge of the photograph as an upright anchor traversing up the composition. From this base, leaves radiate downward, upwards, and at different angles, diverging from their vertical shaft, which creates dynamic visual movement across the flat plane of the photograph. However, that tension diminishes into delicate lines as each leaf’s extension relaxes into effortless curvatures and coils at the tip of its length. The image may be static, paralyzed on the paper, but through the harmony of straight and curved lines it appears as if it could extend, arch, and dance across the composition. Callahan employs light and contrast to add drama to the photograph. Bright highlights contour the grey tones of the plant, accentuating their curls and twists, which are enhanced by the contrasting deep black tones blanketing the background. The shadowy background also removes the plant from informing of its natural habitat, pushing the image to feel more like an abstract sculpture or dancing body than a plant. In Aix-en-Provence, Callahan elevates a simple plant to become a multidimensional subject that extends across the photograph with a graceful essence.  

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