Harry Callahan

Grasses, Wisconsin

1958, printed no later than 1968

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Harry Callahan 1912–1999
Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper
Image: 133 × 204 mm
Purchased with funds provided by the Photography Acquisitions Committee 2012


This is one of eight black and white photographs in Tate’s collection, all of which were taken by the American photographer Harry Callahan, that depict grassy settings in American landscapes. Five of them were shot in the mountains in the American state of Georgia, while one was taken in Wisconsin and the other two show unidentified locations. In all of the pictures the camera is angled down towards the ground, and since they are very tightly cropped and show only grass, the scale of the depicted areas is unclear. Seven of the images have very dense compositions that feature many blades of grass that tend to point in varying directions, lending the scene a highly textured and chaotic effect. These also combine thick patches of grass with individual blades, which are often clearly distinguished through sharp focus and where they pick up the light, giving them a bright, silvery tone. There are also dark shadows lying around and between the clumps of grass. One of the eight photographs – Grasses, Wisconsin 1958 (Tate P80161) – is somewhat different from the rest: rather than showing dense masses of grass, it is highly abstracted, featuring numerous small blades that appear as curving white lines against a largely black background.

The five photographs in this group which depict grass in the Georgia Mountains were all taken between 1987 and 1990. The image of Wisconsin was taken much earlier, in 1958, and the dates of the other two are unknown. All of these works were originally unframed but have now been framed and glazed for display by Tate.

Callahan first produced close-up scenes of nature in 1941, just three years after beginning work as a photographer, and he frequently photographed similar motifs throughout the rest of his career (see also Detroit 1941, Harry Callahan Archive, Center for Creative Photography, Tucson). This is typical of Callahan’s practice, since he regularly returned to subjects that he had worked with previously. Curator Sarah Greenough has argued that Callahan’s act of revisiting his subjects was a way of challenging himself ‘to see and learn from that which is often most difficult to truly see and appreciate – the familiar, the ever present and the previously explored’ (Sarah Greenough, ‘The Art of Seeing’, in National Gallery of Art 1996, p.44).

Discussing Callahan’s approach to nature photography in general, Greenough writes that he tended to avoid ‘nature in its most grand and dramatic manifestations’, instead preferring to produce ‘quiet, intimate studies’ on a relatively small scale (Greenough 1996, p.35). Callahan himself acknowledged this characteristic of his practice in 1988, stating that he had no interest in large-scale subjects such as the Taj Mahal, Yosemite National Park or ‘some snow-capped mountain range’ – perhaps a reference to the epic landscape photography of American artists such as Ansel Adams – and instead preferred ‘shooting things nearby’ and ‘looking close in’ to the scenes he photographed. (Callahan in Paul Raedeke, ‘A One-of-a-Kind Career: An Interview with Harry Callahan’, Chicago Tribune, 29 July 1988, http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1988-07-29/entertainment/8801180518_1_camera-chrysler-corp-photography/2, accessed 17 November 2015.)

Greenough has noted further that by the early 1940s Callahan had ‘recognized that while photography could faithfully depict the external world, it need not; the medium could create its own reality where objects need not be tied to a specific time or place but could assume a life of their own’ (Greenough 1996, p.41). Her observation can be applied to this group of works, in which motifs are viewed very close up and cut off from their contexts, especially Grasses, Wisconsin 1958 which, without the reference in the title, is not clearly identifiable as an area of grass. In all eight of the images, Callahan’s technique of isolating his subjects and presenting them with a high level of detail and light contrasts seems to invite the viewer to engage in a meticulous process of looking.

The curator and writer Tony Guillan has argued that the fine lines that feature in many of Callahan’s photographs lend them a ‘draughtsman’-like quality. Among various examples, he highlights the ‘graphite-grey grass’ of Georgia Mountains 1988 (Tate L03167) and refers to this and other close-up landscape photographs by Callahan as ‘“sketchings” of nature’ (Guillan 2014, accessed 17 November 2015). Guillan’s observations underscore the way in which many of these pictures build up highly dense compositions using masses of individual lines in a manner that is similar to the layering of marks on a pictorial surface, while always maintaining their photographic quality through contrast and sharp focus.

Further reading
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.79.
Tony Guillan, ‘Harry Callahan: Draughtsman with a Camera’, Tate, 19 May 2014, http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/articles/harry-callahan-draughtsman-camera, accessed 17 November 2015.

David Hodge
November 2015

Supported by Christie’s.

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