Harry Callahan

Cape Cod


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In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Harry Callahan 1912–1999
Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper
Image: 144 × 150 mm
Lent by the American Fund for the Tate Gallery 2012
On long term loan


This is one of a group of six photographic works in the Tate collection by the American photographer Harry Callahan that all depict scenes of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Five of these comprise single images, while one is a triptych of three photographs, and the group features a mixture of both black and white and colour pictures. Although the majority depict sand dunes, one presents foliage seen close up. The images of sand dunes are taken from different angles, with some showing significant areas of sky, while others are angled downwards and show only sand. None of the pictures have strong focal points, nor do they show any sign of a human presence. All of the works were originally unframed, although they have now been framed and glazed for display by Tate.

Callahan took all of these photographs on location between 1971 and 1978, but the colour images were printed in subsequent years, perhaps as late as 1989. This is typical of Callahan’s practice, which from 1977 onwards regularly involved him returning to and printing old negatives – especially colour images, which by then could be printed more easily than was possible when they were first taken (Salvesen 2006, p.45). The group owned by Tate represents a small number of Callahan’s many pictures of Cape Cod from the 1970s (see also Cape Cod 1972, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). During this period he was living in nearby Providence, Rhode Island, and was teaching at the Rhode Island School of Design until 1977. Like the photographs in this group, the majority of Callahan’s pictures of Cape Cod are beach scenes, and while some of these other works do feature figures, these generally appear very small, and wide areas of sand, sky and sea tend to dominate the compositions.

Curator Sarah Greenough has argued that Callahan’s photographs of Cape Cod exemplify a shift in his work that began in the early 1970s, observing that his pictures of this period tend not to emphasise technical experimentation in the same way as did his works of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s (Sarah Greenough, ‘The Art of Seeing’, in National Gallery of Art 1996, p.53). She has written that although ‘Earlier in his career Callahan had photographed empty spaces, especially beaches and water’, in these works ‘there was usually something or someone ... to arrest, hold, and focus our attention. They were the nominal subject of the photograph, they were the reason why Callahan took the image. In the more recent work there is no nominal subject, no pretence’ (Greenough 1996, p.53). Greenough goes on to argue:

His later works often seem propelled by his desire to see things in their totality. As in his series of photographs of Horseneck beach on Cape Cod made in the 1970s ... he frequently depicts wide open spaces, often placing them directly in the centre of the image ... As our eyes roam around these empty ¿– and often seemingly quiet – compositions, we become keenly aware of subtle changes in light, color, tone, or texture and note the most incidental of detail ... Less cognizant of experiments, less entranced by resplendent effects, we as viewers become much more conscious of our own act of looking, of how it is that we see.
(Greenough 1996, p.53.)

Although their titles consistently refer to the location where they were taken, the lack of any human presence in these images means that they feel quite divorced from any particular time or place.

Describing his working process in 1975, Callahan stated that he did not plan his photographs in advance, explaining instead that

if I want to ... go photograph on the beach or something, then I’ll walk around the beach and all of a sudden I see something. And then that’s the beginning to start working on something, and then I’ll maybe photograph that and walk down the beach a little farther and find something very similar, and then keep working on that sort of a little theme, whatever it might be ... think all the time I’m doing it I feel like I’m adventuring in some way ... you don’t know what it’s going to be and it comes out real good and that starts you on a whole new way of thinking and seeing.
(Callahan in Brown 1975, accessed 17 November 2015.)

Further reading
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, accessed 17 November 2015.
Harry Callahan, exhibition catalogue, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC 1996, p.53.
Britt Salvesen, Harry Callahan: The Photographer at Work, exhibition catalogue, Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona, Tucson 2006.

David Hodge
November 2015

Supported by Christie’s.

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