Harry Callahan: Sticks and Stones @Pace/MacGill

JTF (just the facts): A total of 31 black and white photographs, generally framed in white and matted, and hung against olive and almond colored walls in the two room gallery space. All of the works are gelatin silver prints, made between 1943 and 1991; most are vintage. Physical sizes range from roughly 2×2 to 10×12 inches, and no edition information was provided on the checklist. (Installation shots below, courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery website.)

Comments/Context: Harry Callahan made enduring and original bodies of photographic work in so many genres that it’s almost impossible to categorize him as an artist with a particular interest in one kind of subject matter. Callahan’s images of the city (in Chicago, Providence, and elsewhere, as in a 2014 exhibit reviewed here) and his nudes and portraits of his wife Eleanor are two of his most celebrated themes, but his experimental multiple exposure pictures and his quieter images of nature are just as accomplished and compositionally sophisticated. Almost regardless of what was in front of his camera, Callahan’s singular clarity of vision came through strongly.

This gently graceful show pares the wide range of pictures Callahan made in nature down into an even smaller subset of images using the motif of “sticks and stones”, editing out his broader views of lakes, forests, and the beaches of Cape Cod in favor of more intimate arrangements and studies of light and gesture. They are the kind of pictures that are easy to overlook (given that they capture humble grass, rocks, snow, and the like), but that shimmer with unexpected intelligence and nuance when observed with more active attention.

Callahan’s images of weeds and grass in snow flatten the fields into pure undifferentiated whiteness, with wispy black lines scattered across the surface like calligraphy. Some reduce the scene to just a few dramatic lines, while others revel in smaller, squigglier gestures and frenetic dashes, the natural forms turned into isolated abstract movements. Even when he steps back a bit further to observe clumps of scraggly winter bushes, the results still feel inky, the markings just more densely clustered and spotted. Callahan made many of these snow studies, but each one has its own personality, the grasses turned into a dance of energetic scratches.

While the snow pictures are exercises in high contrast, other darker images of grasses and trees examine how dappled light shifts across textures. Three photographs from Horseneck Beach watch as light washes across the tops of the grasses, creating waves, spots, and pools of light amid the darker shadows. In the lit areas, each blade of grass sticks up with tactile specificity, the prints executed with astonishing tonal crispness. Callahan used the same approach in views of trees in Providence, with the white trunks of birch trees singled out amid the scatterings of the surrounding forest.

When Callahan looked down at rocks, he considered similar aesthetic ideas, finding light stones nestled in among enveloping grasses and greenery. In pictures from Rhode Island and Maine, he closed in on the textures of different plants providing the backdrop to the smooth rocks, with various ferns, larger leaves, and ground covers offering alternate surfaces. His compositions at Bass Rocks are more rugged and bulbous, the rocks densely filling the frame with rounded, overlapped forms in lush middle grey. Again, the prints of these jumbled piles are exquisite, the subtleties of minute texture becoming rich and engrossing.

One of the smart curatorial touches found in this show is the grouping of like pictures into sets, groups, and grids, even when the images were made in different locations or in different decades. This organizing structure allows Callahan’s ideas about composition to shine, without putting undue pressure on single images to be extraordinary – when we see multiple versions of grass in snow, we start to see more of the aesthetic richness that Callahan was interested in.

In everything from isolated single stalks to jittery multiple exposures of winter trees, Callahan was using nature to explore photographic options for playing with form and tonal gradation, his eye organizing the randomness of the natural world into controlled arrangements. This show is a silent, understated powerhouse, where each print is evidence of intentioned craftsmanship. For those looking for a refreshing dose of old school photographic mastery, freighted less with obtuse conceptual intent and more with refined knowledge of the inner workings of the black and white medium, “Sticks and Stones” delivers the goods.

Collector’s POV: The individual prints in this show range in price from $15000 to $35000, with some images also sold as sets. 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 $2000 to $15000 for later prints, continuing up to as much as $140000 for vintage rarities.

Read more about: Harry Callahan, Pace/MacGill Gallery

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