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Through Harry Callahan's Eyes

Updated: Jul 5

Harry Callahan’s photography breathes a unique, and very-much-needed sensitivity; it is rare in photography to see such raw honesty coupled with compassion. His creative use of contrasting light and shadow-play emotes a curious new feeling in every image. From elements of the naked body portrayed as components of nature, he honoured the human form, and he honoured the viewer by expressing a sacredness to the everyday life. As Clarence John Laughlin composed in Harry Callahan, Masters of Aperture 1999 edition, “Everything, everything, no matter how commonplace and how ugly has secret meanings. Everything.” Did Callahan know the secrets of life and thus could show us a different way of seeing, as explored through his viewfinder?

harry callahan black and white photography
Harry Callahan, Detroit, 1943

Callahan’s view of the world around him delivered a sense that life has a deep meaning, whereas all one encounters should be digested with considerate meditation. From concrete walls, reflections in glass, dreary restaurant signs, or the city bustle, all sounds be regarded with reverence. Williams expresses this very sense in response to the photograph Louis Kahn, by stating, “The sun never knew how great it was till it struck the side of a building.”  Its Callahan’s eyes, as seen through the viewfinder, that illuminates this glorious venture of seeing. Seeing through emotions! Berenice Abbort deliberates “Photography doesn't teach you how to express your emotions it teaches you how to see” and such is the gift of the artist.

Harry Callahan's BMC Days

Harry Callahan - Aperture Master of Photography Hardback
p12 Harry Callahan, Masters of Aperture 1999 edition

We get great insight into Harry's mode of operandi via William’s period spent with him in the summer of 1951 at Black Mountain College (BMC). Williams studied photography with Callahan though he was more writer than photographer, and thusly we gained the wonderfully written insight of Harry's time at BMC.

The “Avant Garde misfits of BMC” were poetic of mind and conduct. Williams learnt the art of sex and music, philosophical thought, and the art of talk and sports, through late night talk sessions. He began to recognise that there is a palette of art for each of the aforementioned occasions when engaged with in the right form with artistic education. Despite the drinking and 3:00 AM conversations, Harry carried a quietude in his work, as seen in his 1953 image (p12) Eleanor, his wife, in which stills time in the humdrum of life as if the air surrounding you freezes and the only sound is your breath (6 – 13, Harry Callahan, Masters of Aperture 1999 edition).

Harry Callahan's Emotive Viewing

Harry Callahan gifted us with emotive viewing for when we truly observe his works in contemplation many emotions arise. For me, as shown in the video below, his 1941 Highland Park Michigan (p. 49) photograph draws me into nostalgia with the procession of people ascending the staircase. Viewed from afar, the people are black lines decorating the stark, white wall. TheTorn Sign 1964 (p. 53) makes me recognise the artistry when one zooms in to observe the ruinous state of things that once were and now a new beauty takes on a new artistic form.

(Harry Callahan, Masters of Aperture 1999 edition).

Harry Callahan - Aperture Master of Photography Hardback
p57, Harry Callahan, Masters of Aperture 1999 edition.

He photographed space and textures such as in Chicago (p.57), captured 1958. We observe how a bustling station is adjusted into silence by his use of negative colour compositions, by shooting during the time of day for strong contrast and long arching shadows of the passersby on the tarmac.

Harry Callahan - Aperture Master of Photography Hardback
p61, Harry Callahan, Masters of Aperture 1999 edition.

The image titled Providence (p.61), captured 1960s, is an astounding work of art that has inspired many street photographers, but I would argue, this form of art should inspire more street photographers to create compositions of poetry rather than freezing a moment in time. In the foreground stands a reflected portrait of a woman through glass where behind, silhouettes of buildings and people create motion. Might I add, all elements in this image are in focus! This technique, not only delievers a message of the sheer importance of every element captured in this image, but also that one does not need bokeh or sole focus components in an image to highlight the key subject. His use of highlighting is done through composition and perfect perspective.

It’s no wonder Harry Callahan’s photographs stand the test of time. His works inspire generations following to consider how he delivers meaning and sensitivity to the mundane. He was a true artist in understanding the candid. Henri Cartier-Bresson expresses that “To take photographs means to recognise – simultaneously and within a fraction of a second – both the fact itself and the rigorous organisation of visually perceived forms that give it [the image] meanings.”

Callahan most humbly said that… "one guy can write a sentence and it's beautiful and another one can write it and it's dead. What that difference is, I don't know”

However, I'd like to state that deep down inside he truly did know how to create beauty for he was an artist of raw emotive expression and it's something that academic study cannot school you on. Rather, it's the raw and authentic artist that can help us become genuine in our creative expression; something created on the go, in the moment, and without second thought. The photograph Chicago Woman on page 65 of Harry Callahan, Masters of Aperture 1999 edition delivers an image of a woman in 1961, crossing the street. Harry did not use cropping for it was "just one less thing to worry about" and it was Ansel Adams that inspired this raw approach.

Harry Callahan - Aperture Master of Photography Hardback
p65, Harry Callahan, Masters of Aperture 1999 edition.

Harry Callahan's Early Life

Harry was born in Detroit, Michigan and eventually found his way into majoring in chemical engineering and then business studies by the autumn of 1935. But by 1940, something drastically changed, and for the better! He joined Detroit photo Guild and attended a workshop by Ansel Adams which inspires his future career.

He buys an 8 by 10-inch camera. By 1943, he has several photographic series of high contrast studies of nature, specifically Weeds in Snow. This series was shot through long exposure of sunlight on water. In another series, he plays with neon lights in street scenes and the last of his series was his two-year long photograph progression of pedestrians. All images behold that creative exposure of light and play of shadows and artistry of silhouettes and reflections.

Take some time to view his studies of Weeds in the Snow at the MOMA to see his curious take on nature and its simplicity.

Pause and Reflect on Harry Callahan's works with Musica Callada

Williams as we established, knew Callahan very well and moreover, understood his shooting style - but let me pause to say, no one can ever truly know the artists and their personal reflection on life and society! Williams suggest we observe in meditate on his photography while “Joseph Colom plays piano pieces called Musica Callada” (p14). It is said that this music translates to “silent music” meaning “heard internally” delivering a personal echo in the evocation of feelings arising when viewing his works.

I'm excited to tell you that by the year of 1950 he had made two 16 mm films called Motions and People walking on State Street. But it was two years previously in 1948, that propelled him into fame with his six photographs exhibited in the Museum of Modern art in a series called In and Out of Focus, essentially describing his photographic works.

It is difficult to pinpoint how he was able to cultivate such an incredible vision in photography, but perhaps we leave it to simply knowledge that he honoured his creative and quiet nature. Furthermore, he was a student of the arts in photography and learned from the great masters, such as Adams, but made sure to practise his craft and expand his understanding of the world around him by continuing to be inspired from his travels such as his extensive 1963 adventures of Mexico and Europe and his 1968 sabbatical in Rome.

Harry Callahan - Aperture Master of Photography Hardback
Harry Callahan - Aperture Master of Photography Hardback

During his photography, career he received many accolades his work, but I believe the greatest accolade of them all is to continually have inspired creatives to see the world in the wonders of emotion. He gave us new eyes and a vision to allow emotions to arise when viewing an old shop walls to the incredible sculpture of the human body and its reflection of nature. Most of all, he teaches us respect for our eyes by training our perception of all that is around us to observe the reflections and silhouettes, the grading hues on the sky and shadows on the earth and to contemplate the faces of the passersby.

Reference List

I do not own any images nor music attached to my article on Harry Callahan

All images are from captured from Williams book Harry Callahan, Masters of Aperture 1999 edition.

Music: Música Callada XX · Javier Perianes · Mompou Frederic Frederic Mompou: Mùsica Callada ℗ 2006 harmonia mundi Composer: Mompou Frederic

Callahan, Harry, 1912-1999 & Williams, Jonathan, 1929-2008 & Aperture Foundation. 1999, Harry Callahan. Könemann ; Aperture Foundation, Inc Köln, [Germany] : New York, N.Y.


Great artist...these images of limited colour, sepia tones and B & W help create his intriguing work.

Replying to

Great comment! Totally agree. There is so much depth and space in his works

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