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.
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.
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.
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