My wife Kate and I discovered the American photographer Harry Callahan in 2010, when we visited this exhibit at the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson in Paris. Callahan’s often experimental work reminded us a little of Man Ray, and the men’s lives did overlap for decades. They could have influenced each other.
But Callahan seemed the more conservative of the two. For example, from around 1945 to 1960, his wife Eleanor was his only model, appearing (both nude and clothed) in Harry’s home photos, street scenes and landscapes. But, like Man Ray, Callahan tried a staggering variety of photo tools and techniques.
The one-time amateur also became quite influential. His work appeared in Edward Steichen’s famous exhibition “The Family of Man.” Harry also represented the United States in Venice’s 1978 Biennale. But I’d guess he may have been proudest of the many students he influenced while teaching at Chicago’s Institute of Design (after Laszlo Moholy-Nagy invited him to join its faculty) and RISD (whose photography program he established and led).
The Paris exhibit featured a number of Callahan’s “Eleanor” photos. But I was drawn more to his street candids– and the weirdly wonderful way he shot them. He:
- Walked with his Leica held upside down near his knee and his finger wrapped behind the camera to reach the shutter button,
- “Guess-aimed” the camera as people approached him (or he, them),
- And shot when he thought his subjects reached the camera’s pre-focused range.
With the camera held way down by his leg– and he staring innocently ahead– few people ever realized what Harry was up to!
I loved the technique’s oddity and anonymity, and spent much of our time in Paris trying to reproduce it– in color, as opposed to Callahan’s usual black-and-white. The small size and excellent low-light capabilities of my Fuji F31fd point-and-shoot made it ideal for the project.
Needless to say, Callahan had more time to perfect the technique than I did on our trip. But here are five of my best attempts, accompanied by Callahan quotes that seem oddly appropriate:
And I still find it hard to believe that this last photo (taken during Paris Fashion Week) turned out so well. (It was, however, my sixth attempt.) One thing that helped was the fact that the people and columns in the frame all fell within a short distance range. So my inability to preset the F31fd’s focus wasn’t a serious issue, and the whole image was reasonably sharp:
In the rear-view mirror of memory, the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson seems perhaps the most fitting place to stage a Callahan retrospective. After all, Henri became famous for capturing “decisive” street moments. And Harry– in his own quirky way– did the same. Following their leads on Paris streets was both fun and thrilling.
–Dave Powell is a Westford, Mass. writer and avid amateur photographer.
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