Harry Callahan’s photographs from his series ‘City’ are shown at Pace/McGill Gallery in NYC and they are a great opportunity not only to get acquainted with the work of one of Anselm Adams’ pupils but also to see how NY (and Chicago) art (and, clearly, also photography) mastered the ability to make abstraction and expression to collapse into one image. The show comprises a selection of nearly 50 gelatin silver prints depicting the city landscape, his wife Eleanor and his daughter Barbara.
Even though the most important thing seems to be the subject matter (as the artist stated in his 1964 monograph Harry Callahan: Photographs, published by El Mochuelo Gallery, Santa Barbara), there is a formal drive towards abstraction that injects a subjective (in the sense of expressive) element to the works. This does not mean that his works are sentimental but they are existential to the point of emptying that that is represented from any familiarity. It is as if Callahan distillates the angles and the sun light so much that the air becomes too thin to be real. Instrumental in introducing a vocabulary of formal abstraction into American photography at a time when descriptive realism was the dominant aesthetic, Callahan employed techniques of extreme contrast (Bob Fine, c. 1952), reduction of form (Telephone Wires, 1945-76), and multiple exposure (Chicago, 1948) to present the everyday urban environment from unexpected points of view.
Pace/McGill’s press release is right when asserting that Callahan’s was a quest for conceptual expression that transcended the external cityscape to render visible the urban state-of-mind. There is a loneliness that comes across as fear and that is a very human thing to depict. I would call these photos ‘abstract expressionist’. His series of full- frame faces of “women lost in thought” on the streets of Chicago from 1950, for example, are psychological portraits of the city, void of any direct reference to its physical architectural space but the light comes from above the ‘sitters’ and always project an oblique shadow that make the whole composition abstract. I love this show. Just a thought.