Musings on Photography

Harry Callahan: The Photographer at Work

Posted in artists, books, process by Paul Butzi on August 31, 2007


I finally got my hands on a copy of this book, which is the source for the quotation in this post. As I expected, I found the essay the quoted text came from to be what I’ve come to expect from John Szarkowski. Szarkowski always leaves me feeling muddled and confused, not least because (although he himself was a photographer) he always seems muddled and confused about how the actual process of photography works for so very many photographers. It always seems to me like Szarkowski is some sort of forensic anthropologist who stumbled across a tribe of exotic, alien people and has never quite figured out what their culture is about. Oh, he has lots of breathless prose that articulates arcane theories about it all, but I never get the impression that he actually believes them himself. Everyone else seems to think that the sun shines out his ass (or did), so I guess maybe it’s just me.

In contrast, I found the essay that starts the book (written by Britt Salvesen) to be much more up my alley. The essay starts

Harry Callahan is an icon in American photography. Self-taught, driven, taciturn by nature but endlessly inventive in his art, Callahan rose from inauspicious beginnings to become a central figure in mid-twentieth-century modernism and one the most influential teachers of his generation. He discovered photography in 1938 at the age of twenty-six; within five years he had already mastered the techniques, themes, and subjects he would explore over a career of some six decades. In a field dominated by eccentrics, bohemians, pedants, and high priests, Callahan epitomized the regular guy, the reticent Midwesterner quick to deflate any critic’s mystification of his creative process. And yet he pursued his chosen medium with complete dedication and faith, integrating his life and art in a highly disciplined but deeply intuitive manner.

One passage that particularly caught my attention was this:

Arthur Siegel, an early mentor of Callahan’s, reflected: “I was a damn good photographer, but I get bored easily with an idea, whereas to be, you know, a great artist like Harry, [you have to] kick it to death. You know, you keep doing it over and over and over again, and I never did that.

It isn’t so much that I agree that in order to be a great artist you have to pound things into the ground and just exhaust them. It was more that apparently this is what Callahan did – he kept returning to the same ideas, the same material, and kept finding them a well that never ran dry.

Callahan’s words on this:

I photograph continuously, often without a good idea or strong feelings. During this time the photos are nearly all poor but I believe they develop my seeing and help later on in other photos. I do believe strongly in photography and hope by following it intuitively that when the photographs are looked at they will touch the spirit in people.

The essay goes on and on. To be honest, I haven’t read the whole thing, because I get started, and before I’ve turned the page I’ve hit another idea that has my distractable mind whizzing off on another tangent. That’s not bad, it’s good.

And I really like Callahan’s photos, at least most of the ones in this book. More books on order from the library. And although I resist buying books (I prefer to let the library buy them, lend them to me when I want them, and store them for me when I don’t), I suspect I’m going to break down and get a copy of this one.

3 Responses

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  2. Dave Beckerman said, on September 4, 2007 at 2:23 am

    “Beating it to death,” has been my own method. When I first began photographing I thought that if some impressionist painter could do his garden over and over, it was good enough for me.

    It was why I wasn’t very good doing travel shots. I have always needed to return to the same place, themes, ideas and usually not knowing why; although I think there were “Jungian” symbols involved.

    Currently, I’m working with infrared flash. I don’t know exactly how this started, but for two months that’s all I can do. I feel like there’s something there, but I’m not sure what exactly.

    When I was working full time, I carried a camera with me and passed the Flat Iron building every day. Every day I took at least one shot of the building. One day, on the way home from my “real” job, it was beginning to rain. I saw an angle of the building and a mood that I hadn’t seen before; and that was that. It was suddenly out of my system.

    As far as being “in the now,” goes. Yes and no. I was once sitting in the house during a snow storm when I had an idea of what could be a good shot. Out I went to see if that shot existed, or whether the world wasn’t really like that. Turned out to be a mixture of both.

    Brings me to another idea I’ve been thinking about: the so-called “decisive moment.”

    Maybe I should save that for another post – but I’m toying with the idea that the decisive moment doesn’t always have to do with when you “click,” the shutter – but when you have the idea of the image in your head.

    I know this is stretching things, but I’ve wondered for some time whether when Weston set up his peppers, or whatever arrangement he was shooting, and put the camera on bulb, and left the shutter open for 10 hours – where the decisive moment was. I think it was when he was satisified with the idea of what he visualized.

    Okay – sorry for rambling – but this post struck a few chords with me. — Dave.

  3. Sean said, on September 4, 2007 at 9:53 am

    I don’t think “kicking to death” is the right way of putting it. The relationship a photographer has to some of his subjects is a lot like a marriage. In a good relationship, you’ll occasionally finding yourself falling in love with your spouse again, and finding new things you appreciate about him/her.

    Callahan just had a healthy relationship with his subject matter, one that matured and continuously produced new insights.

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