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
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:
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:
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.