Harry Callahan proves that Photography is a branch of the arts

Harry Callahan (1912-1999) is considered “one of the most influential figures in post-war photography, yet his work is little known in the UK”. Tate Modern’s way of remediating this lack of recognition is to hold a free display of his works until 31 May 2014. I didn’t know him myself and went to hear from Simon Baker, Tate’s passionate Curator, Photography and International Art.

A self-taught artist, Callahan decided to start photography after attending a workshop run by Ansel Adams. Adams was known for his black & white landscape photographs, which recorded far beyond mere reality. Callahan was also influenced by Moholy-Nagy, a Bauhaus professor, whose paintings I had admired, while ignoring his photography practice. Moholy-Nagy was a pioneer in photography that captures beyond the vision i.e. showing what the eye can’t see.

Callahan photographed Nature, Building and People. Still, many of his photographs are abstract compositions. His other inspiration was Rodchenko, a Russian constructivist artist, photographer, and graphic designer, whom I discovered at a 2007 exhibition at the MaM (Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris). Rodchenko’s photographs displayed sharp views either “bird’s eye view” (from above) or “worm’s eye view” (from below). Callahan and Rodchenko turned the everyday subject into abstract photography.

20140131-060646.jpgHarry Callahan New York printed 1979-89
© Estate of Harry Callahan; courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York

I have seen several photography exhibitions by now and was attracted by Callahan’s photography work as it was far from a mere record of reality. His photographs of nature, which could be viewed as a “ready-made” subject, were definitely artworks. Weed became pencil drawings and his view of Georgia Mountains resembled impressionist paintings. He also worked on double negatives, the contrast in his pictures, and colour using the dye transfer technique to accentuate the reds.

I remember a discussion with my friend E. when we were browsing the London Art Fair. She wouldn’t buy photographs as she felt she could reproduce them herself. I think she has a point and seeing a photograph of a painting at the fair proved her right. However, some photographers’ (like Callahan and Man Ray) earnest working on composition made me conclude that photography IS a branch of the arts.

20140131-060504.jpgHarry Callahan Providence 1966, printed 1990-9
© Estate of Harry Callahan; courtesy of Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York

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