Pace/MacGill Gallery is pleased to present Harry Callahan: Sticks and Stones from September 6 through October 20, 2018. Featuring over 30 gelatin silver prints, the exhibition considers Harry Callahan’s photographic exploration of the natural world, from his initial experiments in Michigan in the early 1940s to Georgia landscapes made in the 1980s and early 1990s following his retirement from teaching. When viewed collectively, Callahan’s black-and-white studies of weeds, grasses, branches, and rocks masterfully demonstrate his ability to evolve a single genre over time by revisiting and expanding his conceptual and technical discourse.
One of the foremost American photographers of the 20th century, Callahan (1912-1999) learned to find visual inspiration in the natural forms of local landscape from photographic luminary Ansel Adams, whose technical mastery and environmental reverence Callahan greatly admired. When Callahan saw Adams’ remarkably rich and highly detailed 8 x 10” prints in the early 1940s, he asked Adams how he had achieved such results. Adams shared that he used a large format camera, made contact prints from the negatives, and photographed in his backyard – Yosemite.
Callahan quickly acquired a large format camera and made contact prints of the negatives he had made of weeds in snow in his backyard in Detroit. Rendered in black and white with no detail whatsoever, Callahan did not seek to separate from Adams or prove a point, rather, he took Adams’ working methodologies and intuitively went to a new place by making some of the earliest, purest examples of abstraction in American art. These small early photographs provide clear evidence of Callahan’s genius and ability to exercise his craft in a totally original way.
Callahan repeatedly returned to the same subjects throughout his prolific six-decade career – his wife Eleanor and daughter Barbara, the urban environment, and nature – continually developing new methods to embrace and depict them. Utilizing different camera formats and materials, the resulting pictures are thematically consistent, but varied in their aesthetic approach.
Instrumental in introducing a vocabulary of formal abstraction into American photography at a time when descriptive realism was the dominant aesthetic, Callahan employed techniques of extreme contrast, reduction of form, seriality and multiple exposure to present the natural world from unexpected points of view. As Callahan wrote in his artist statement for the 1964 monograph, Harry Callahan: Photographs, published by El Mochuelo Gallery, Santa Barbara:
On a good cold winter day I was photographing in the snow in extremely soft and shadowless light and on the ground glass I suddenly saw just lines of the weeds in the snow. Making photos this way seemed a sort of sin in relation to tone and texture because the only image I printed was line - no snow texture. Semi-consciously this opened a whole new way of seeing for me…
It’s the subject matter that counts. I’m interested in revealing the subject in a new way to intensify it. A photo is able to capture a moment that people can’t always see. Wanting to see more makes you grow as a person and growing makes you want to show more of life around you. In each exploration or concern for the subject, I continue in the area for a great length of time, sometimes a couple of years. Working this way has been the result of my doing the photo series or groups. Many things I can’t return to and many things I return to come out better.
In their innovative approach to subject matter, Callahan’s distilled compositions of sinuous tree branches, sprawling bramble, flowing grasses, and dense rock clusters evade conventions of the genre and assert the artist’s modern and inventive sensibility. It is the exceptional creative breadth and investigative depth of Callahan’s artistic process, paired with his rigorous devotion to precise craft and technical refinement, that distinguishes these works as masterpieces of modern photography.
Harry Callahan began his photographic career as an untrained amateur while working for the Chrysler Motor Parts Corporation in 1938. Following a workshop by Ansel Adams at the Detroit Photo Guild in 1941 and a meeting with Alfred Stieglitz in 1942, Callahan decided to completely devote his energies to the medium. His talent in the field was recognized in 1946 by László Moholy-Nagy, who invited Callahan to teach photography at Chicago’s Institute of Design (formerly the New Bauhaus). After a 15-year tenure in Chicago, Callahan moved to Providence in 1961 to begin and chair the Photography Department at the Rhode Island School of Design, where he taught until his retirement in 1977.
Since his first one-person show in 1947, Callahan’s photographs have been featured in numerous solo and group exhibitions worldwide, with retrospectives organized by The Museum of Modern Art, New York (1976-77), the Centre Pompidou, Paris (1991), the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. (1996-97), the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona, Tucson (2006), and the Haus der Photographie, Deichtorhallen, Hamburg (2013). Recent exhibitions include Harry Callahan: The Street at the Vancouver Art Gallery, Vancouver (2016) and Harry Callahan: French Archives, Aix-en-Provence 1957–1958 at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie, Paris (2016-17). His work has been the subject of over a dozen monographic publications and can be found in the permanent collections of most major institutions around the world.
A recipient of many distinctions, Callahan was the first photographer chosen to represent the United States at the 1978 Venice Biennial, and received the National Medal of Arts from President Clinton in 1996. His archive is located at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, Arizona.