Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Harry Callahan and Edward Hopper Walk Into a Bar

Atlanta, 1984, by Harry Callahan.

It’s easy to think that the American artist Harry Callahan was one of the most canonical figures in both fine art and photography as an art form in the 20th century. It’s also logical and natural to think so, since it’s largely true. To be a part of a canon, as Callahan is, or even to initiate one, as his peer Walker Evans did, means, as the critic Harold Bloom has so effectively demonstrated, that you occupy a special place in the cultural stratosphere, a location which requires everyone after you to be placed in a contextual relationship to you and your work. There is a canon in every medium, be it literature, painting, dance or photography. There are also a classical, a romantic and a modernist canon, with, say, Caravaggio, Turner and Hopper, to name only a few, as part of the hierarchy of painting. Just as clearly, photography has its own historical epochs and a similar aesthetic canon: Stieglitz, Evans, Callahan.

As Aldis Browne has astutely and allegorically noticed, “Callahan’s eye was to the camera what the painter Edward Hopper’s was to the canvas."

Harry Callahan (1912-1999) was captivated by what has been called the “lived experience” and as such he practiced what could be considered a phenomenology of the photographic image: the real and ideal are identical. He was also what I would call a radical conformist. By this I mean that, like John Coltrane in jazz or James Joyce in literature, he took a myriad of traditions and extended them so far in the direction they were already headed that he morphed into an experimental artist. Yet his roots were in multiple traditions overlapping profoundly at their edges as he swooped past their borders and limits, playing with his powers as only great artists know how to be playful. Callahan would always remain a pictorial master but he ended up shadow boxing with a kind of alert abstraction that merged an elegant impressionist eye with a tough-minded modernist gaze.

For me, and for the many people who visited the recent retrospective exhibition of his arresting images at the Vancouver Art Gallery called The Street, Harry Callahan was the Monet of the camera. A glimpse of three portraits of one of his favourite models, his wife Eleanor, gives a clear indication of how and why I’m identifying him as a photo-impressionist of the same order and rigor as Monet was in the realm of canvas. Callahan’s “paint” is of course light and time instead of pigment, but the results are equally evocative.

Eleanor, 1952, by Harry Callahan.

At first glance, his deceptively simple and casually captured images might appear to be sedately traditional and classical compositions . . . but they are not.  He was one of the most radical and revolutionary photographic artists in the last century.

Even more pertinent to the persistence of aesthetic limits, he was at heart a revolutionary artist pummeling tradition. He was also, to some extent, America personified. Not the way, say, Walker Evans (nine years his senior) was America embodied; the difference between their approaches to America’s unconscious would be both subtle and strong, but it nonetheless captured an essence and captivated a time. Yet he was also the best of Europe remembered. The great expatriate Bauhaus master Lazlo Moholy-Nagy invite dCallahan to teach at the Institute of Design in Chicago in 1946, where he would remain until 1961, leaving a lasting imprint on the minds of upcoming generations of photographic artists. Callahan went on to found the photography department of the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, making an indelible impact on yet another wave of up-and-coming camera artists, many of whom became among the most influential and respected faculty members at universities across North America, including Vancouver.

Vancouver itself would eventually end up having a unique relationship with Callahan’s work. Its permanent collection contains about 600 photographs by Callahan acquired through a generous donation of images in 2013 by the Montreal-based Rossy Family Foundation, which now leaves them the largest Callahan collection in Canada, and the second-largest public collection in the world. The Vancouver Art Gallery decided to celebrate this gift, as well as commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Callahan retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1976, by mounting an extensive and very impressive installation focusing on the artist’s interest in capturing the ebb and flow of human beings in the rushing urban river of The Street. (Their exhibition ran from June 11 to October 30, 2016.)

The Street featured more than 130 photographs that reveal to us the artist’s fascination with, focus and exploration of the public thoroughfare as a social space: in effect, a social sculpture made of constantly moving and interacting parts. The exhibition featured a complete cross-career obsession with urban life, from the in-camera Detroit montages of the early 1940’s all the way to the late-1980’s multi-part works along Peachtree Street in Atlanta.

Egypt, 1978, by Harry Callahan.

During this passage through time, in itself a massive human journey undertaken by a restless and relentless visual voyager which took him around the world in search of seductive images, the elegant grays and blacks that so readily identify his iconic style also give way to a riot of colour that startles the retina. A fine example of this shift is the work he produced during trips to the Middle East and North Africa.

It was these sensational and spontaneous images that led to his even deeper fascination with architecturally distressed surfaces, walls hoardings, torn posters and apparently two-dimensional debris which gave birth to some of his most gorgeously abstract and conceptually challenging late pieces.

This amazing painterly collection of unified and coherently conceived photographs also covered the whole range of his expertise with multiple formats and delivery systems: multiple exposures in vivid black and white, richly colour-toned single-exposure dye transfer prints, chromogenic and silver gelatin prints.

Needless to say, this stellar selection, curated by Grant Arnold, Audain Curator of British Columbia Art for the Vancouver Art Gallery, is also accompanied by what we can rightly call a very handsome catalogue book, produced by Black Dog Publishing. That book is the ideal document to commemorate the remarkable work of a vastly eclectic and gifted practitioner of durational impressionism. Harry Callahan paints with light and sculpts with time, and he has left us all a compelling biography of what the architectural historian Lewis Mumford called the human environment.

Chicago, 1948, by Harry Callahan.

I was quite taken by the insights of one of the essay authors in the book on this exhibition. From “Modernist Photography and The Street in the Cold War Era” by John Pultz, a curator at the Spencer Museum of Art and a teacher at the University of Kansas:
The street – the thoroughfares that provide pedestrians with access to the urban core while diving the urban landscape into parcels – played an enduring role in the career of Harry Callahan. While Callahan employed the street as a subject, he approached it in an entirely distinct way.
We might think that Callahan’s pictures provide us with a history of streets themselves, however despite their basis in the observable world, Callahan’s street photographs were never meant to be documents of a pre-existing truth. I suggest that they are instead illusory meta-fictions that straddle the line between truth and fiction – they create an imaginary realm out of the apparent stuff of everyday life through a medium that was, at least at that time, seen to be closely aligned to truth. Catching a vanishing way of life, they now evoke nostalgia for an earlier time. Could Callahan have sensed the fugitive nature of this specific form of city life? Could it be that, already, standing on downtown streets in Detroit and Chicago, even in Providence and Atlanta, he knew what was to become of his beloved cities?
I believe the answer to this question, which lends a deep elegiac tone to this collection of photographs, one that is indeed already embedded in them, is a definite yes. Harry saw the future. He captured the present, he transformed the past. He showed us that we are all sentient beings moving along a shared pathway, perhaps on a street itself built of fleeting moments, and that we all have something in common as humans, something that he was able to see in us, regardless of how different we may have looked on the outside.

We should all be wild about Harry, because he was wild about us.

– Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films. He has been the Executive Director of both the Professional Art Dealers Association of Canada and The Ontario Association of Art Galleries. He is the author of the book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, and is a frequent curator of film programs for Cinematheque. His current work in progress is a new book called Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, being released by Backbeat Books in Spring 2018.

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