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This is one of eighteen photographs in Tate’s collection, all taken by the American photographer Harry Callahan, that depict his wife Eleanor and in some cases their daughter Barbara. Fourteen show Eleanor on her own, while two depict mother and daughter together and a further two represent Barbara alone. Some of these scenes are tightly cropped to show only individual body parts, with others depicting the figures within rooms or landscapes. Most are black and white, but some are in colour. Eleanor is usually seen nude or semi-nude. She frequently faces away from the camera and both figures tend not to acknowledge its presence. The photographs experiment with a range of lighting conditions and photographic effects, including silhouettes, strong contrasts of light and dark and multiple exposures. All of these works were originally unframed but have now been framed and glazed for display by Tate.
Although the earliest of these photographs was taken in 1941, most were shot between 1947 and 1957. During this decade Callahan took a large number of pictures depicting Eleanor and Barbara, although a relatively small minority of these were ultimately printed and exhibited, many as late as 1999, the year of Callahan’s death. This was typical of Callahan’s practice: he estimated that only around twenty per cent of all of his pictures were ever printed and he usually only published around half a dozen per year as finished pieces (see Britt Salvesen, ‘Harry Callahan: The Photographer at Work’, in Center for Creative Photography 2006, p.41). The late printing is also typical: from 1977 onwards Callahan regularly returned to old negatives to print them, especially colour ones, which he could now produce more easily than was possible when the images were first taken (Salvesen 2006, p.45). This group of photographs in Tate’s collection represents under half of Callahan’s many authorised works depicting Eleanor and Barbara (for an example in another collection, see Eleanor, Chicago 1949, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York).
When photographing Eleanor and Barbara, Callahan would suggest poses for them and he often arranged them in such a way as to accentuate certain lighting effects (Salvesen 2006, p.31). The titles of the photographs refer to their subjects by name and often also specify a location. Although the earliest picture was taken in Detroit, where Callahan and Eleanor lived in the early 1940s, many were shot in Chicago, the city to which they moved in 1946. Several of the later shots were also taken in Provence and Florence while the family were travelling in the late 1950s. Callahan rarely photographed his wife and daughter after 1957, since in 1958 Eleanor went back to work and from the late 1950s onwards Barbara became reluctant to pose for him (see Sarah Greenough, ‘The Art of Seeing’, in National Gallery of Art 1996, p.50).
In 1975 Callahan stated that his images of Eleanor and Barbara were not intended as ‘documentary’ works, which might record ‘how they act and stuff like that’, but instead as pictures that ‘felt ... intuitive’ (Callahan in Brown 1975, accessed 17 November 2015). This resonates with a more general comment about his practice that he made in the following year, stating that while some photographers ‘try to say something – some kind of literal, intellectual statement’, for him this approach meant ‘absolutely nothing’, and he preferred to work purely ‘visually’ (Callahan in Ann Parson, ‘Harry Callahan’, Boston Phoenix Magazine, 19 October 1976, p.27). This may explain why the photographs in this group do not seem to document the everyday activities of the sitters or offer any clear narrative content, but instead are primarily concerned with visual details such as pose, light and composition.
With their very wide range of photographic techniques and lighting effects, these photographs demonstrate Callahan’s highly experimental approach to photography. Curator Sarah Greenough has written that from the mid-1940s until the late 1960s Callahan’s work was consistently ‘experimental, new, innovative, and individualistic’, and that
Like European modernist photographers, he demanded that his work present the world in a new way ... To this end, he has explored extreme contrast as well as texture, tone, and detail; he has made prints that are almost all white as well as ones that are almost entirely black; he has created multiple exposure and out-of-focus images; he has investigated time exposure and camera movement ... and he has employed both black-and-white as well as colour photography.
(Greenough 1996, pp.31–2.)
Robert Brown, ‘Oral History Interview with Harry M. Callahan, 1975 February 13’, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC 1975, http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-harry-m-callahan-11869, accessed 17 November 2015.
Harry Callahan, exhibition catalogue, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC 1996.
Harry Callahan: The Photographer at Work, exhibition catalogue, Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona, Tucson 2006, reproduced p.162.
Supported by Christie’s.