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©Harry Callahan

One for all, all for Harry Callahan

Harry Callahan woke up with the first sunlight, washed himself and had a light breakfast. Then he took his camera, loaded a fresh roll of film and took a photo of his wife Eleanor, still sleeping, before going outside. Chicago was cold in March. He wandered about the streets he knew so well, nothing particular on his mind, no particular goal. Every now and then a scene would catch his eye, catch his mood, and he would take a couple of shots and walk on.

This, at least, is what a typical morning in the life of Harry Callahan, one of the few innovators of modern American photography, could have been like, the way I imagine it. Of course there is no way of knowing what really went on in the head of this man whose photographs were displayed no less than 38 times in the famous Museum of Modern Art in New York. But the following words by John Szarkowski let me believe I am not that far off:

The point is that for Harry Callahan photography has been a way of living – his way of meeting and making peace with the day.


©Harry Callahan

©Harry Callahan

Fast forward to Tokyo, Japan in the year 2013.

Here I am, on my creative journey, being told from all sides to focus more on one thing, that I have to get one style and keep pushing it consistently.

If you shoot color, stick with it. If you shoot alone standing trees in winter landscapes, stick with it. If you shoot headshots of males between 25-45 years, stick with it. Shooting cat paws in square format? STICK WITH IT. If all the cats are white/beige striped, even better. Whatever you do, stick with it.

This is driving me crazy. I feel bad about myself. Feel bad about not having found that one same thing to shoot all the time. It feels frustrating. Many times I don’t even want to touch the camera because of that. I start doubting this photography thing is for me, after all.

And then, something magical happened: by chance, I read about this one man, who takes color photos, black and white photos, landscape photos, street photos, portraits, architecture, nudes, double exposures, square, 8×10, 2×3, 35mm, 120mm, you name it. And he gets to hang his photos in MoMA 38 times. Now, seriously? Are you kidding me? Who IS this man? I felt energetic and relieved, excited and like somebody reached out, grabbed me by the collar, and spoke directly to me. I found my photographic hero.

©Harry Callahan

©Harry Callahan

But Harry Callahan was really a very simple, easy man, I like to believe. He didn’t want to change the world with his photography. Didn’t try to explain some human condition. Instead, he focused on himself. On what he saw and how it resonated with his mood. And he focused on what was near to him and what he loved. His wife. Especially his wife. The things and scenes that surrounded him, his every-day life.

Instead of putting the ‘object’ into the center of his photography, he focused on his ever changing way of seeing, and tried how this could be expressed through various mediums. As one of the first photographers, he freed himself from the boundaries and esthetics of Realism.

©Harry Callahan

©Harry Callahan

Of course there is also a flip side to being that versatile:

Outside of the US, Harry Callahan’s work rarely found recognition. After all, it might be hard to pinpoint his “style”, compared to, say, cat paws of white/beige striped cats in square format.

Now, unfortunately Harry Callahan passed in 1999, so there is no way of asking him about these things. And I’m no arts historian/critic/analyst/expert/younameit. Maybe in reality he was merely a self-centered jerk who didn’t care much about anything else in this world (sorry, Harry).

To wrap it up, I guess what I want to say and what I want you to take away from this is this:

Maybe it’s not all that bad not to be crazy about only one thing, one object that you like to photograph again and again and again. Maybe there’s another side to it, which does not revolve around any one object, but about you. Just you.

… and that’s okay.


P.S: (… except you want to be famous outside of the US….. kidding :P)
Update (Feb. 2016): Pete made me aware of a National Gallery of Art (NGA) podcast episode featuring a talk about Harry Callahan. I can certainly recommend it, it is very insightful and well made. The link is here: Harry Calahan: Photographer, Teacher, Mentor


Made me think. Great write up, and this artist is really interesting.
I understand that you are struggling with the idea of sticking to one thing. I think the lesson learned from Harry is that it does not need to be one genre, but that you should constantly create. Maybe it is not as important to stick to one style as it is to consistently create. For example, maybe one day you take an awesome street photo but the next day you make an insane drawing 😉
or something like that…

Thanks for your comment! Taking awesome street photos and making insane drawings sounds like somebody I know… 😉

I think the answer to his style is in the first quote. Take what catches your eye. Your style is what/how you see.

I agree that’s one side to it, the side I got used to and the one that can’t really get pinned down or put into one drawer.
Now I’m slowly getting into the side that involves the active process of visualization of what you want to express – phew!! 😛

Really interesting, Holger. Thank you for introducing me to Harry Callahan’s work. I think his photos have a certain elegance to them that’s just really captivating.

And, I think what you said is right, “there’s another side to it, which does not revolve around any one object, but about you.” I feel like Harry Callahan really is able show his view of the world through his photography.

After looking at Harry’s photography, what do you think were the qualities that got him into MoMa 38 times?

(I also loved that when you google image search him, pictures of Dirty Harry get mingled with his collection of shots)

Thanks for your comment Cathy! 🙂
I was thinking about that myself for quite a bit, like what made him get into the MoMA not once or twice, but 38 (!) times. Once for every different style he tried? Don’t think so, haha… Maybe he was very close with the responsible people there? Probably a part of it.
Most plausible, however, is maybe that he simply did something no-one really did before him, which is using photography as a way to express his way of seeing things, to use photography 100% for artistic purposes. To which extent this statement is true, I cannot say, since I don’t know enough about arts history. Even if that’s the case, though, 38 times does seem a bit much, doesn’t it 😛

(and yes, I loved the Dirty Harry photos mixed randomly with the other photos, as well, hehe)

Hi, Holger

here’s a link to an excellent NGA podcast about Callahan by some of his famous ex-students:


Thanks for the link! Loaded on my iPod, to be listened to next week – looking forward to it.

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