Thursday, February 14, 2008

Happy Valentine's Day

For me, the photograph that most fully expresses the idea of love is Harry Callahan’s double exposure of his wife Eleanor’s face over a field of roots and grasses (above). It signifies that Eleanor was everything to Harry and he won't let you forget this. The picture refuses to allow your eyes to sit still as you’re pulled deeper and deeper into its compositional web. The stems at the top of her head crackle like neural electricity. The flowery branch at bottom left becomes a bouquet. Motion and emotion intertwine.

If this image weren’t enough it is, of course, just one of hundreds and hundreds of pictures the photographer took of his wife starting in the late 1930s after Harry had taken a photography workshop with Ansel Adams. Harry had met Eleanor on a blind date in 1933, and three years later they were married. They both worked at Chrysler in Detroit where she was a 17 year old secretary and he worked in the parts department when he wasn’t busy with the company camera club.

For Harry, Eleanor was not so much a muse as she was a reflection of life. He thought like a writer and photographed what he knew. He learned from his own experiments. As Arthur Ollman pointed out in his essay “The Model Wife”:

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, 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."

One of the most surprising aspects of the Callahans work together was how little controversy they caused in their time. Harry’s pictures of Eleanor left no part of her anatomy unexamined and were reasonably widely seen. So what gave Eleanor the confidence to do something so unusual? I asked her the one time we met and she said “I thought they were poetry and I knew Harry would never do anything out of line!”


Alice Olive said...

Absolutely stunning. I love Harry Callahan's work. The first photo of his wife Eleanor is beautiful. Breath-taking.

I love the relationship some photographers have with their spouse. It's very special and lets them explore amazing things through the medium of photography.

Beautiful post. Thank you.

momo said...

The Minneapolis Institute of Arts is having a show of photos from a recent bequest, and there were some Callahan photos displayed, including the one of Eleanor in the water. My friend and I lingered over them. Thanks for sharing these pictures and the story.

Anonymous said...

Another eloquent meditation on love. Thank you.

Anonymous said...


What an inspiring blog entree / you've raised the envelop

Exquisite grouping , insightful words

Here's caviar for valentines day!

david bram said...

I am lucky enough to have a wife who not only understands photography but also understands me.

And she knows that I would never cross the line.

I love her madly.