Harry and Eleanor

Reproduced by kind permission of the gallery

Reproduced by kind permission of the gallery

Harry Callahan is one of those ‘people’ in the history of photography, a name synonymous with the art and craft of it all and associated with the development of the medium as an art form. Teaching at the Chicago Institute before moving on to the Rhode Island school he will have met and worked with some the major luminaries of the world of photography. So it was with a sense of excitement that I ventured up to the fourth floor of the Tate Modern to see a display of his work and a sizeable selection of his work at that. This show, extracted from the relatively few images he printed, seemed somewhat eclectic, with no great theme holding them together – though as I went to the Tate primarily to view Richard Hamilton’s huge retrospective, it’s degrees of variation paled by comparison.

The first image I saw: ‘ Vogue Collage’ had me somewhat excited as I saw it as an image of representation, no doubt it was, hundreds of female portraits, culled, I presume, from the the pages of Vogue magazine and collaged for the male gaze, representing not only our (the male’s) traditional view of the other, but also perhaps questioning it; flooding the viewer’s senses with images of ‘beautiful’ women, from an archetypical purveyor of capitalism’s view of women’s own representation of women. These were passive representations of women

Reproduced by kind permission of the gallery

Vogue Collage circa 1956 printed 1990 – 9 printed on aluminium                             Reproduced by kind permission of the gallery

and I am there now in the frame as a silent observer. My initial excitement waned considerably though as I moved into the exhibition rooms. This may be in part because of what’s in my mind currently, what it is that I’m concerning myself with, in this course, and that is the representation of women, feminism and photography’s part in it all.

Callahan’s work on the white walls here disappointed me. The prints were, by and large, very beautiful, he was a more than accomplished printer and the influence of Ansel Adams was very clear to see:

Reproduced by kind permission of the gallery

Reproduced by kind permission of the gallery

Reproduced by kind permission of the gallery

Reproduced by kind permission of the gallery

There were a lot of these passive, flaccid works of nature, skilfully exposed and printed in exquisitely described warm tones of ‘nature’, the ‘great outdoors’ and I had a deal of fun re-toning them to re-present them here in similar tones. That Callahan left almost no notes of his practice or contemporaneous thoughts left me wondering why these images and not others – though what others might be included I’m not sure. I could find no sense of narrative, there seemed to be almost no contextual structuring to the show. And so to Eleanor:

Reproduced by kind permission of the gallery

Reproduced by kind permission of the gallery

There is a room dedicated to his wife, and I suppose muse, Eleanor. The portraits/studies were from a large selection that Callahan made of his wife for over twenty years; nude and clothed, inside and outside (in the world and hidden from it). Eleanor comes as part of the package, to know Harry as a photographer is to know Eleanor, she is there. And what I got from this work is that whilst she was there she was there for him; again skating on what may be the thin ice of comprehension of female representation, I found that all of the images of Eleanor were based on the premise of submissive passivity. Whilst the image above of the light touching her nude form, which spoke to me off my own recent work about light,  Eleanor seemed to be portrayed as an expression of Callahan’s position of dominance, facing away from the lens. The power equation never seemed to balance, Eleanor seemed mute in these images. I couldn’t discern any sense of the person within expressing a sense of their own person through the images. This sense of submission was there even in the fully clothed portraits. I fully accept that my ‘reading’ of these images is a product of my own concerns and prejudices. I watched ‘Bailey’s Stardust’ (was there ever such an attempt to lionise oneself by the deliberate exclusion of a name to present oneself as a name – well not until ‘Rankin’ I suppose) recently about the ‘blockbuster at the NPG where he has a wall of a couple of his wives – ‘it’s good share‘ – was how he described why he would want to display nude studies of his current and previous spouses. As Tom Hunter expressed about the ‘sexist pig’ in an interview with Robert Elms recently – ‘we can’t judge them by today’s moral compass‘. Why not? I wouldn’t bracket Callahan with Bailey as I don’t think Callahan had as many chips on his shoulders as Bailey, but I wasn’t sure about why we needed to see these images, the show was eclectic as it was without Eleanor or perhaps without Eleanor Callahan wasn’t half the person that he was with her and to describe him without her wouldn’t tell half the story.

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Early Social Documentary

I’ve held back from starting the coursework whilst attempting to collate the previous module’s work for assessment, that’s done now. I have looked at the course notes a few times and after wandering around the various assignments I have tried to stay in Assignment One – “Social Documentary”. And I was interested to see various coincidences/references to previous work in the course

It was a curious coincidence that one of the research suggestions was a Youtube “Masters of Photography” video entitled Alfred Steiglitz: The Eloquent Eye (1999) www.youtube.com/watch?v=8YhwgdtphE . I say coincidence as I had just recently recorded a PBS broadcast of another “Master of Photography” film on Ansel Adams.

It was Steiglitz of course who provide one of Adams’ first one man shows at the “Place”  in New York and the key motivation that Steiglitz provided Adams is another coincidence here. The film on Adams didn’t change my view of him; clearly still a seminal figure in the development of the medium of photography in the early to mid twentieth century, a campaigner for the environment and, when other photographers saw the need to document the plight of the people during the recession, Adams decided to continue photographing the wilderness. Whereas Steiglitz will be remembered for not only his photography, but also for the work in nurturing some key painters and photographers as well as being the first to bring Picasso in a one man show to America. He saw the need to bring credibility and respect for photography as a medium and worked very to do so, and to a large extent he helped form the notion that a photograph could be a work of art.

And then there were the references to some of the pioneers of photography, perhaps more specifically documentary photography and I remembered a debate I had on the WeAreOca site soon after I enrolled see here http://www.weareoca.com/photography/context-and-narrative/. Reading through the thread again after this time I think the arguments still hold well, from both sides – though I still hold that Fenton still viewed a truth not available to the masses, but then I’m still not sure he was all that interested in them. Both Brady (also mentioned in the early references in the course) and Fenton were acknowledged “shapers” of the landscape, moving the scenery to elicit a stronger narrative pull for the viewer. Only a few months ago I would still have held strong views about the photographers need to record and not to interfere; I now see that as naïve. Naïve in the sense that even a different perspective of the same scene can draw a different response, and to ensure, as best as the photographer can, to communicate either a strong editorial comment or, to leave the viewer in a state of indeterminacy – by design, is now something I feel as quite important. I have written about Fenton here also http://jsu-photo.blogspot.co.uk/2011/08/war-peace.html

And finally there is the mention of another iconic image, that of Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother. Radio 3 had a dramatisation of the taking of this image – the programme is no longer available on download  www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00w5qv0 but I have recorded and will enjoy listening to it again.

No doubt these familiar names will surface again.