Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Ten "Epiphanous" Photographs: #6

The sixth of ten "epiphanous photographs" - a hand-picked series of photographs as defined in an earlier Blog entry - is...

Epiphanous Photograph #6: Harry Callahan's Ivy Tentacles on Glass, Chicago, 1952

Harry Callahan (1912–1999) - a renowned, self-taught American photographer, born in Detroit, Michigan - bought his first camera in 1938 and was appointed in 1946 by László Moholy-Nagy to teach photography at Chicago's Institute of Design. He taught at the Institute until 1961, after which he continued teaching photography at the Rhode Island School of Design, until his retirement in 1977.

Callahan was best known for his dedicated experimentation with subject matter, theme and the printing process. While his subjects varied from landscapes, to street scenes, to pedestrians, to parks, and to intimate portraits of his wife (Eleanor), all of his photographs are marked by a strong sense of elegant design and gentle simplicity.

His Ivy Tentacles on Glass, which he took in 1952, illustrates one kind of experimentation with extreme contrast. Callahan had been heavily influenced by Ansel Adams when he took a workshop with the master in 1941; so much so that the experience compelled him to trade his 35mm camera and darkroom enlarger for an 8-by-10 view camera. After mastering the fine art print, with its great tonal range (following Adams' well known example and lessons in the "Zone System"), Callahan took his first steps toward a lifetime of constant experimentation, in which he sometimes turned expectation and convention on its ear.

This particular photograph is a wonderful example of an extrememly high contrast print where the only "tones" as such are the colors, black and white. Indeed, at first glance, a viewer may be forgiven for mistaking the photograph for a minimalist cartoon!

For me, this photo contains the seeds of two important lessons (mini "epiphanies"): (1) that constant, playful, experimentation fuels artistic growth; that, as an artist, I must constantly seek ways to go beyond the conventions my own past work has already set in stone, and to seek ways to deform my own artistic landscape; and (2) that there is sometimes great promise in seeking abstract tones and forms without the added conceptual and emotional burden (as one senses underlies most of the works of André Kertész and Minor White) to infuse the photograph with hidden layers of symbolic meaning. Callahan is here simply having fun with abstraction for abstraction's own sake; simply because the ultra-minimalist high-contrast composition looks beautiful when rendered this way! In contrast to Kertész's photographs, almost all of which seem to exude Kertész's deep meloncholy toward life and station in life as an artist (indeed, Kertész's meloncholy is what arguably drove all his photography!), Callahan's photographs seem to be bursting with a playful - joyous even! - energy.

"I think nearly every artist continually wants to reach the edge of nothingness - the point where you can't go any farther." - Harry Callahan

While this basic lesson may seem obvious to some, it was not obvious at all to a much younger version of myself when I first encountered Ivy Tentacles on Glass so many years ago! I often recall its whimsical energy - and Callahan's tireless artistic experimentation - whenever I feel like I'm slipping into a creative rut. It is also one of the ten photographs that collectively define what I love about fine art photography.

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