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November 17, 2001 - January 2, 2002 at Grant Selwyn Fine Art, Beverly Hills

by Mario Cutajar

Over a career that spanned nearly 60 years, Harry Callahan established himself as one of the canonical figures of postwar American photography. Born in 1912 to a heartland farmer who had moved to Detroit, Michigan, looking for work in the auto factories, Callahan initially followed in his father's footsteps. In 1938, while working as a Chrysler Motors shipping clerk, his wife's dentist showed him a movie camera. It's worth noting, in view of Callahan's lifelong engagement with the formal possibilities of photography, that it was the machine beauty of the camera itself that Callahan first responded to. He called it a "jewel." He purchased a Rolleicord, joined a camera club, and started taking pictures. Unhappy with the results, in 1941 he took a workshop with Ansel Adams, who made him see the camera as a tonal instrument for composing with gradations of light.

The encounter with Adams was decisive, but when Callahan started making pictures with his new 8-by-10 view camera he disdained Adams's majestic landscapes for more intimate portraits of his wife, Eleanor, and abstract studies of humble, ubiquitous things: weeds in snow, neon lights, telephone wires, building facades, and random close-ups of mostly female passers-by. "Buildings, grasses, and people walking," as he succinctly described his interests, would be recurring themes throughout his career, which only ended with his death in 1999.

As a teacher, first at the Institute of Design in Chicago and later at the Rhode Island School of Design, Callahan influenced several generations of photographers. But he was loathe to issue general proclamations about the nature of photography. His highest praise for a photograph was to call it "dumb," meaning, at least in part, that it possessed some revelatory quality that could not be reduced to words.

His most celebrated photographs are of Eleanor in various locales and varying degrees of exposure. I've personally never cared for these photographs, though others have claimed to discover in them exemplary records of devotion and intimacy. To my eye they suffer from never being sufficiently cold or hot, but hovering in some indeterminate state inbetween. Far more affecting to me are the photographs of Cape Cod that Callahan made in the '70s, a number of which, along with selections from the Telephone Wire and New York series, have found their way into this show.

These pictures of strangely vacant, light haunted intersections of sky, land, and ocean are confrontations with the limits of both the ego and photography itself as the ego's instrument. They are oriented toward death rather than life, intimating in a cold, unsentimental way passage to another world or, perhaps, the engulfing oblivion at the horizon.

Concurrent with the Callahan show, selections of Robert Polidori's color photography are also on display. His architectural photographs have appeared in the New Yorker and other publications. Polidori's images of such subjects as an aristocrat's decaying apartment in Havana or a shell-pocked sniper's nest in Beirut have a postmodernist edge compounded by shifting proportions of hyper-aestheticism and disillusionment. They both complement and supply an antidote to Callahan's restrained modernist optimism.

Harry Callahan, “Cape Cod,” (1)
gelatin silver print, 1974.

Harry Callahan, “Cape Cod,” (2)
gelatin silver print, 1974.

Harry Callahan, “Cape Cod,” (3)
gelatin silver print, 1974.

Harry Callahan, “New York,”
gelatin silver print, 1974.

Robert Polidori, "Doorway, Samir-
geageahea," color photograph.