Harry Callahan: City @Pace/MacGill

JTF (just the facts): A total of 42 black and white photographs, variously framed and matted, and hung against grey walls in the two room gallery space. All of the works are gelatin silver prints, made between 1945 and 1974; the show includes a mix of vintage and later prints. Physical dimensions range from roughly 2×2 to 14×11; no edition information was available. (Installation shots below, courtesy of Pace/MacGill Gallery.)

Comments/Context: You’d think that by now, after the countless superlative shows, retrospectives, and books across several decades, we would have exhausted the avenues for exploring the photography of Harry Callahan. But this tightly edited show focused on Callahan’s city pictures is full of small discoveries and revelations, so much so that it will make you want to bow down at the feet of the master yet again.

What comes through in these smart selections is that the city (broadly defined, including Chicago, New York and other locations) wasn’t just handy subject matter for Callahan; it was a kind of muse that he would return to again and again over his career. And each time he returned to the city, he found new artistic problems to explore, often revisiting a facet or detail with a different set of technical approaches and tools.

In the 1940s, he made images of building walls, cropping them down to accentuate the patterns of strict horizontals in the windows and lintels; some thirty years later, he made square format pictures of skyscrapers, playing with their contrasting striped verticals. In 1950, Callahan shot close-up faces in the streets, working quickly to capture a passing face before it fell into a dark blur; roughly ten years later, he was back on the sidewalks, this time shooting from the hip with a wide angle lens, capturing full body pedestrians from below. In the late 1940s, he was making in camera multiple exposures, piling variants up in a single frame; by the mid 1950s, he was twisting the camera, employing half exposures, and collapsing disparate images into overlaps (and don’t miss the one contact sheet in the show, which shows 12 multiple exposure compositions – it’s a display of virtuosity without error or throw away that is nothing short of staggering). Seen together, there is a sense of rhythm to Callahan’s recurring exploration of the city, a fugue of theme and variation that comes back again and again, each time with a set of expertly executed new riffs on old subjects.

If this wasn’t enough, this show also unearths some lesser known images from Providence in the 1960s, which show Callahan dipping his toe into appropriating adjacent media, grafting magazine pages and TV screens into his city investigations. Half a dozen pictures from 1967 find him layering exposures of soft core pin-up spreads on top of store window displays, with fragments of language/signage like BEEF, GIFTS, or FOR LEASE providing in situ commentary; while it is unclear how aware Callahan was of Robert Heinecken’s magazine collages, there is clearly some affinity of mindset. Similarly, a trio of images creates split frame composites of sidewalk pedestrians and television stills; these works are reminiscent of Lee Friedlander’s little screens, but made wholly Callahan’s by his innovative bisected technique.

Whether he was looking up at the black on white lines of overhead wires or capturing Eleanor and Barbara with meticulous attention to vertical alignment, these pictures tell the story of matching craftsmanship with intent, of knowing his tools so well that he could constantly find ways to pair them with the raw material in his mind’s eye. While the history of the medium is bursting with images of cities, this show gathers together roughly a dozen distinct approaches to the city, each and every one a precise, self contained project. Most photographers would have been content with one or two of these ideas. The fact that Callahan so consistently uncovered new formal brilliance in the city after nearly forty years of looking is a testament to the durable creativity of his vision.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced between $15000 and $40000, with some already sold. Callahan’s prints are ubiquitous in the secondary markets, with dozens of vintage and later prints available every year. Prices at auction generally range from $3000 to $15000 for later prints, continuing up to roughly $100000 for vintage rarities.

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One comment

  1. Pete /

    That’s a great summing up. He displayed incredible diversity – I can’t think of anyone else who managed that. A few managed a radical change, but once only.

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