Harry Callahan | The Street

I was pretty excited to see that a photographic exhibition on Harry Callahan’s work was scheduled for the Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG) at the beginning of the year and doubly so when I received my course materials for Identity and Place and saw that he was one of the referenced photographers to study in Part 2. This is definitely a first for me.

I did take photographs in the gallery, but due to the strong lighting there was just too much reflection, so I bought the exhibition catalogue and make the photographs from there, so please excuse my wonky perspective lines. I have straightened them out as far as I can in LightRoom.

The exhibition at the VAG is quite extensive. The VAG acquired almost 600 Callahan photographs through the generosity of the Rossy Family Foundation in 2013 and the collection is representative of the full chronology of Callahan’s career and themes that he worked on, from nature studies to portraits of his wife and daughter, to street photography in the cities of Chicago, Detroit, Providence and Cairo. The actual exhibition features more than 120 photographs of urban environment, beginning with his multi-exposure images in the 1940s and concludes with the multi-panel images of Peachtree Street in Atlanta made in the 1980s and 1990s.

From the Peachtree series | 1987-90 by Harry Callahan
From the Peachtree series | 1987-90 by Harry Callahan

Callahan did not adhere to the idea of previsualization that Adams and the Group f/64 advocated at that time and his ideas of self-expression were contrary to the idea of merging functionality with aesthetics as projected by Moholy-Nagy as well. Throughout his career he used experimental techniques.

Detroit | 1943 by Harry Callahan
Detroit | 1943 by Harry Callahan

The above image of Detroit is a multiple exposure using eight or more frames to create an intricate layered image of the city life. To me it represents the chaos, hustle and bustle of the streets in a large city. The image is filled with details, no one specific point to lock focus on, compelling the viewer to scan the image in all directions, almost as if one is trying to cross a busy street. Diagonal lines abound in this image lending credence to the movement that is happening in the various layers.

… the dynamism of the picture’s formal structure, which seems to sweep the viewer along with the crowd, counters the profound sense of alienation embodied in most of Callahan’s later images of urban space.

Grant Arnold (2016: 14)

The exhibition catalogue describes this image as having a “gloomy tonality” (p.14) and while I can see that the overall middle gray tone might appear gloomy, I find myself very intrigued by this image. It almost has a Dickensian feel to it and scenes of the workhouse and child labour spring to mind. I suppose that is rather gloomy! Yet still I feel the need to peel away the individual layers to see more.

Callahan’s series of women’s faces on the street were made using a telephoto lens and the women were all unaware of their portraits being taken.  No background details are visible. There is a sense of intrusion into their private lives in all these images. We see glimpses of women lost in thought, frowning in pain, tired and chatting to an unseen companion, isolated in the city life.  The compositions are so tight that the tops of their heads are cut off or their mouth and chin. So close that we are forced to look at the individual features of each woman’s face, thereby putting us in an intimate posture with the women. Nevertheless, the viewer is left asking the question – who are these women and what is their story. Callahan leaves the answer to that question to us.

Another trope that Callahan used when making photographs of people on the street was to photograph in dark shadows “in which the chasm-like darkness of the street is alleviated by only the occasional shaft of light that penetrates the shadows of the surrounding towers, briefly illuminating a pedestrian on the sidewalk” (Arnold, 2016: 14). These photographs are very dark and mysterious, the subjects only partially touched by light depicting the ominous, dangerous places that every city has.

The third image in the gallery above of La Salle Street, was created by running roll film through the camera twice. This resulted in pictures where only the darkest areas show up in the prints (Pultz, 2016: 29).

Eleanor & Barbara, Chicago | 1953 by Harry Callahan
Eleanor & Barbara, Chicago | 1953 by Harry Callahan

Callahan’s street photography style was different when photographing his wife, Eleanor and daughter, Barbara. He photographed them snapshot style on the streets posing at well know sites in Chicago. In all the photographs Eleanor and Barbara small (almost dwarfed) by their surroundings.

In Chicago, Fall 1958 (first in gallery above) we again see Callahan’s method of catching pedestrians in bright light before dark forms and shadows. His “vantage point seems to immerse the subject in a sea of impenetrably dark tones, making the scene seem distant, as if a memory recalled in a moment of reverie, rather than lived experience” (Pultz, 2016: 30)

Abigail Solomon-Godeau ( (2007) says of Callahan’s photos the opposition between Callahan’s vision of the city – alienated, inhospitable, antisocial and oppressive – and his depiction of women subjects begins to reveal the oppositional structure of domestic of ‘natural space’ versus public space; spouse versus stranger; elemental, sexualized body versus objectified alien body” (Grant 2016: 19). The second photo in the gallery above bears out Solomon-Godeau’s statement, making a broad reference to female objectification with the pornographic pose superimposed above the woman walking in the street.

The third image in the gallery above is another example of Callahan’s multiple exposures. We see images from a large electronic billboard or TV, probably from a soap opera superimposed over the facade of a building that looks very much like a law court. In the foreground two figures walk hand in hand into superimposed text. Perhaps a play on the dramas that play out in law courts, likening them to soap operas?

Atlanta | 1985 by Harry Callahan
Atlanta | 1985 by Harry Callahan

Of all Callahan’s photos on display at the exhibition, I would have to say that his multiple exposure work caught my attention the most. Ever since working on Assignment 2 in Context and Narrative, I have found myself drawn to this type of work, and hopefully I will have more opportunities to experiment with this technique myself.

Reference List

Arnold, Grant (2016) Harry Callahan: The Street In Harry Callahan | The Street. Vancouver: Vancouver Art Gallery.

Pultz, John (2016) Harry Callahan’s Modernist Photography and the Street in the Cold War Era In Harry Callahan | The Street. Vancouver: Vancouver Art Gallery.

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