The Model Wife

Excerpt from the book The Model Wife, by Arthur Ollman, Director of the Museum of Photographic Art


Harry Callahan (1912-1999)

Harry Callahan was a complex man who seemed to be a simple man. His apparent simplicity was engendered by reticence and frail verbal skills. He explained himself plainly: "In my life, being married was one powerful experience, photography by itself was a powerful experience, coming to Chicago to teach was a great experience, having a daughter was another experience, as well as living in Europe. I think these have all been very strong influences in my growing as a photographer."

No doubt, these were the forces that shaped Harry Callahan's life and art, yet a close study of his work reveals that he also absorbed artistic insights from the important figures he encountered along the way, and, as much as any photographer ever did, Callahan learned from his own experimentation. Modernist experimentation with materials and equipment are central to his art. That Callahan applied this formal inquiry to an exploration of his private and vulnerable inner life made him nearly unique.

Harry met Eleanor on a blind date in 1933. Three years later they were married. In 1938, he began photographing, and joined a camera club for camaraderie and to broaden his understanding of the medium. In 1942, the Callahans visited New York, saw the museums, and met Alfred Stieglitz before returning to Detroit. In 1946, Callahan was hired by László Moholy-Nagy to teach in Chicago at the Institute of Design, founded in 1939 and known as the New Bauhaus. There he became acquainted with Aaron Siskind, Waiter Gropius, Herbert Bayer, Mies van der Rohe, Hugo Weber, and soon after, Edward Steichen. (left: Harry Callahan, Eleanor, ca. 1947, gelatin silver print, collection: Center for Creative Photography, The University of Arizona)

Callahan's work was a deeply personal response to his own life. He was well known to encourage his students to turn their cameras on their lives, and he led by example. Even as he did this he was not sentimental, romantic, or emotional. Harry illustrated the centrality of Eleanor in his life by his continual return to her over fifteen years as his prime subject -- she is subject more than model -- but the images are not about who she is, what she does, what she thinks as an individual. Harry Callahan's art is a long meditation on the possibilities of photography as it might be used playfully, but not naively.

Eleanor was essential to his art from 1947 to 1960. Harry photographed her everywhere -- at home, in the city streets, in the landscape; alone, with their daughter, in black and white and in color, nude and clothed, distant and close. He tried every technical experiment -- double and triple exposure, blurs, large camera and small. The attitude of respect and warmth permeates the endeavor.

In 1950, their daughter Barbara was born, and even prior to her birth she showed up in pregnancy photographs. From 1948 to 1953, Eleanor, and sometimes Barbara, are shown out in the landscape as a tiny counterpoint to large expanses of park, skyline, or water. No matter how small a part of the scene they are, they still dominate our perception.

The Callahans found a way to nourish and sustain a mutual balance of sharing and productivity. Eleanor remembers, "It was part of our daily life for 25 years.... He took pictures wherever we happened to be. I might be cooking dinner, and Harry would say, Eleanor, the light is just beautiful right now. Come on, I'd like to take a picture of you,' and we'd go and make a photograph."

Harry and Eleanor, and for a few years, Barbara, were remarkably prolific, producing hundreds of images and thousands of variants, working day after day. Callahan's life was experimentation and investigation. Those efforts were not "about" his life. They were his life.

While in purely formal terms the model might have been any other woman, in fact the partnership and momentum of their lives together freed Harry to invent spontaneously and rhythmically with a discipline that would have been unavailable to an artist needing to arrange for a hired model. It is also true that seeing his wife in daily changes of light and mood inspired numerous interpretations.

His prime interest, when photographing anything, even his wife, is photography. His passion was to push its ideas around, test it, map its potential boundaries, and play with it. Callahan's formal experiments were conducted with the people who were the trusted center of his universe. The photographs were marinated in meaning. When his family appeared as a tiny counterpoint to a huge landscape or city view, one senses that the one small percent of the image that is Eleanor and Barbara was simply the center of his life.

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This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 4/27/11

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