Harry Callahan, Eleanor in New York(1945).
Courtesy: High Museum of Art, Atlanta.
by George Hornbein
A portrait photographer has two options: he can go to the subject and attempt to capture the subject’s essence – trapping their soul and freezing their dance – in the subject’s own environment. Or, he can have the subject come to him and be placed as the photographer wishes and be captured reacting to their new surroundings.
Cartier-Bresson went to the subject and waited for the magic moment, the one hundred twenty-fifth of a second when everything before the lens was right - the soul was trapped, the dance was locked in time. The man leaping across the puddle was completely focused on his task of reaching the dry side.
Annie Leibovitz, on the other hand, whose remarkable show leaves Atlanta’s High Museum even as Harry Callahan’s opens, is a portrait photographer who has the subject “come” to her. Leibovitz stages the tableau and captures her subjects reacting to a setting that is not their own. She has Whoopi Goldberg lie in a bathtub filled with milk and takes her portrait in that highly charged, staged environment. Either approach can yield insight into the subject’s being. Both approaches fix abstract compositions that speak to the viewer.
Harry Callahan was a photographer, like Leibovitz, who brought his subjects to himself. In Callahan’s show at the High, all the work, some one hundred thirty photographs, is of his wife Eleanor, alone or with their daughter Barbara.
The first thing that grabbed me when I walked into the gallery was the incredible strength of the compositions. Callahan loved to shoot subjects with the plane of the background perpendicular to the axis of the camera lens. He also loved symmetry. Eleanor is often placed in the middle of the photograph. In one of a series shot in a single afternoon in New York, she stands a few feet in front of a brick wall. Her cloth coat is buttoned to her neck. Her hair flares out from either side of her face. She looks directly at the camera. Her hair is parted down the middle and, by no accident, the topmost vertical mortar joint that is aligned with the part in her hair is stained darker than any of the other joints.
The second thing that struck me was Eleanor herself. Given the abstract elements of the compositions, mannequins could have been properly arranged and substituted for her. But she is there and her presence is strong. Her trust in her husband, her self confidence, her sense of her own worth as a person, her ease with the role Callahan asked her to play are all evident.
Many of the portraits of Eleanor are nude studies and many of those are studies of form, texture and shades of light where Eleanor’s back is to the camera or her head is out of the frame. In the photographs where Eleanor does face the camera she seems completely uninhibited and just as self-assured as when she is fully clothed.
Barbara, as a toddler, is in some of the photographs. She often breaks the structure that Callahan staged with her mother. Barbara looks away from the camera, reaches for something that intrigued her or in some other way would not be as cooperative a subject as her mother and would make her father come to her and capture an unstagged, magic moment of Barbara’s making. This break from the otherwise highly controlled structure gives these photographs an added spark that Callahan recognized and allowed to be fixed.
One of the exhibit’s few color photographs is a nude study of Eleanor and Barbara, backlit and framed in a gauzed window. Eleanor is looking down at Barbara and holding her hand. Eleanor’s foot is on the windowsill, suggesting that the two of them are about to step through the window into another world. The composition, the play of light, the arrangement of the forms are precise and have been carefully arranged by Callahan. Eleanor looks down at Barbara in a protective way. Barbara tentatively looks at the windowsill. That unplanned tension is the added dimension the mother and daughter bring to the photograph.
Eleanor and Barbara were at the press preview that I attended. I asked Eleanor how Harry had directed her. “Oh, I did exactly what he told me to do. If he said ‘put your hand on your head’, I put my hand on my head. “Well,” I said, “I read that he often developed the pictures the same evening that they were taken. Did you look at them with him?” “No, not usually, I just went with him when he asked me to.”
I asked Eleanor to pose for me in front of four Callahan prints. I placed her in the center of the composition and took her picture with a cell phone camera. I showed the picture to her on the tiny screen. “Is that the picture? Is it finished already?”
Eleanor and Barbara provide a great contribution to Harry Callahan’s amazingly powerful, carefully controlled photographs. What they contribute is a sense of humanity to an otherwise abstract, studied composition. Harry Callahan recognized what they brought to the pictures and, to his credit, incorporated, and took advantage of their magic moments.
Eleanor Callahan, 2007. Photo: George Hornbein.
George Hornbein is an architect and principle in the firm of HOKO Architects in Atlanta.