RadioBDC Logo
Red Eyes | The War On Drugs Listen Live
 
 
< Back to front page Text size +

A constant presence

Posted by Teresa Hanafin  November 29, 2008 02:33 PM

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

 
Eleanor, New York
Harry Callahan's many photographs of his wife Eleanor
include this one taken in New York in 1945.
(Courtesy of Pace/MacGill Gallery; Harry Callahan Estate)

Medium and muse come together in exhibit of Harry Callahan photos

By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff

PROVIDENCE - There have been two great husband-and-wife acts in photographic history. The better-known is Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O'Keeffe. Over the course of 20 years, he took more than 350 photographs of her. The other is Harry and Eleanor Callahan. He took so many photographs of her it's impossible to give an accurate tally. It's equally impossible to imagine Callahan's career without those photographs as part of it.

The Eleanor pictures not only helped populate Callahan's art. They reflected so many other elements of it: his interest in pure form, landscape and nature, the play of light and shadow, the use of multiple exposures. The 95 photographs that make up "Harry Callahan: Eleanor," which runs at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art through Feb. 15, are products of a decades-long investigation of a medium no less than a muse.

These pictures also provide a welcome counterweight within Callahan's body of work. There's an inherent austerity to his art which Eleanor's presence within a frame compensates for. Even so, there's a slightly drained quality to these pictures, an absence of exaltation. They suggest totality rather than intensity: a sense that no one else in the world exists other than these two people (or three, when Callahan photographed Eleanor with their daughter, Barbara). "It becomes just another part of your day," Eleanor said of posing so much for her husband; "It was a very natural thing to do."

 
Eleanor and Barbara
"Eleanor and Barbara" 1953
(Courtesy of the Nicholas Pritzker Collection, Harry Callahan Estate)

That naturalness created an otherness. At what point of accumulation does a body of images take on a life of its own? "When I look back on those photographs," Eleanor has said, "I don't see them as myself. I see them as very beautiful pictures, but I don't think, 'That's me.' . . . They are something separate from me."

That separateness is fitting. Form always interested Callahan more than feeling did. So much of the success of the Eleanor pictures lies in how he could simply take feeling for granted and concentrate on form. Despite their consistent understatement, there is at least one thing patently lavish about the Eleanor pictures: the love in them.

Callahan's photographs of his wife are a vast theme and variations. She's the theme, and he provides the variations: Eleanor nude, clothed, in close-up, in the distance, in the city, in the country, in the water, with their daughter, and on and on. The effect is one of constant, low-key exploration. Clearly, Callahan never tired of Eleanor - or the joining of his eye and her appearance. Nor do we.

They met on a blind date, in Detroit, in 1933. Their marriage lasted 63 years, until his death, in 1999. Now living in Atlanta, Eleanor came to RISD to see the show earlier this month.

She provided most of the income for much of their lives, working as an executive secretary. Maybe her breadwinner status helps account, at least in part, for the feeling of mutuality in the pictures. Callahan was in complete charge - not just of working the camera, but also choosing when and where to shoot and even how Eleanor should pose. Yet there is an unmistakable sense of partnership here.

Eleanor may not have herself been an artist, as O'Keeffe was. But her occupation mattered in the Callahan household. It was only after Callahan came to RISD, in 1961, to found the school's photography program, that he could finally pull his own financial weight. He taught there until 1997, and among his former students are Emmet Gowin and Henry Horenstein.

Callahan first photographed Eleanor in 1941 and did so most intensively between 1947 and 1963. She was handsome rather than pretty - like O'Keeffe, in that respect - with a strong face, forthright dark eyes, and abundant hair. The squareness of her face ideally suited Callahan's formalist bent. (The center part in her scalp can at times seem almost Pythagorean.) Eleanor's face assumes an aspect of fecund geometry, a meeting place of curves and angles that manages to be simultaneously abstract and profoundly human.

Big buttocked, wide hipped, full breasted, Eleanor's appearance often recalls that of a latter-day fertility figure or, better yet, a Gaston Lachaise sculpture made flesh and rendered in two dimensions. Although rarely erotic, these photographs can possess a striking physicality.

 
Eleanor
"Eleanor, Chicago" 1947
(Courtesy of the Harry Callahan Estate)

Enhancing the quality of "Harry Callahan: Eleanor" is how RISD has mounted it. It's in two rooms, one of them the museum's new Bill and Nancy Tsiaras Photography Gallery, the first space here solely dedicated to the medium. Ninety-five pictures in two comfortably sized rooms would seem to risk wall overload. The effect, though, is one of satisfying fullness. The intimacy of the images helps, as does the fact most of them are small. The presence of a Callahan family photo album in a display case further encourages a homey feel. It's a splendid item, overstuffed and looking well thumbed, as one might expect from such an object of domestic affection. Its existence might seem incongruous. But poets make grocery lists and composers whistle. Why shouldn't photographers have albums for their family photos?

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------

Harry Callahan: Eleanor
Through Feb. 15
Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art
224 Benefit St.
Providence, RI
401-454-6500
www.risdmuseum.org

  • E-mail
  • E-mail this article

    Invalid E-mail address
    Invalid E-mail address

    Sending your article

    Your article has been sent.

JOIN THE RAW DAWGS

Welcome to your community for New England's amateur photographers. Take pictures ... get published ... win money ... have a blast!
OCTOBER THEME
The Color Green
It's the color of hope, envy, regeneration, relaxation, and money -- as well as the theme of the October contest. Make it the focal point of your best photograph.
Upcoming events

Featured Photographer

Featured Photographer: Ben Rifkin
Life and wildlife in Madagascar
For years before I started college, I knew I wanted to spend a semester studying abroad, but I wasn't sure where. By my junior year at Brandeis, I made up my mind to travel somewhere off the beaten path, and, of course, Madagascar is pretty far off the beaten path for someone like me....
An essay about Rebirth Workshops
Now that it's been several months since I returned from a week-long Rebirth Workshop in Mississippi, I'm happy to look back and provide an overview of what we did that made it such an intense experience for me as a photographer....
Photography apps for your phone
Thinking of ditching your separate camera and moving to just using your phone for all your photos? What apps should you go for? Instagram made headlines recently after being bought by Facebook for $1 billion. What does it include, and what else is out there?...
archives