Magazine Home  |  News  |  Features  |  Reviews  |  Books  |  People  |  Horoscope  

Harry Callahan
Chicago, 1955
copywright the estate of Harry Callahan
courtesy Carol Ehlers Gallery

Chicago, Morreale Grocery, 1955

Clybourn Club, 1955

Chicago, 1949

Dearborn Street, Chicago, 1948

Building facade, 1950
Mornings with Harry Callahan
by Victor M. Cassidy

Harry Callahan (1912-1999) made his reputation with black and white photographs, which he developed and printed himself. He took photographs all day, developed them at night, and often returned to the same place on the following day to take more pictures.

Callahan took color photographs too, but he had to send them out for processing and could not always afford to have prints made. During the last 25 years of his life, he reviewed his color slides and had some printed. Nine Cibachromes of Chicago storefronts, which Callahan took in 1954-55 and approved for printing in the late '90s, are on exhibition at the Carol Ehlers Gallery, Chicago, until Apr. 14, 2001.

Vernacular architecture
During 1946, László Moholy-Nagy invited Callahan to teach at the Institute of Design in Chicago. Callahan moved to Chicago and began to photograph local building façades in 1948, making black and white images that are well known today.

During the early 1950s, Callahan became friendly with the architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who shared his passion for quality, craftsmanship and perfection of detail. Both men took a special interest in open and closed architectural spaces -- and the interplay between building interiors and exteriors. This is reflected in the storefront photographs.

Callahan liked to work early in the morning and the cool, even light we see in the storefront photographs suggests that they were taken at that time of day, probably in autumn of 1954 and spring of 1955. The storefronts are vernacular architecture -- small, undistinguished wooden structures along commercial strips about two miles northwest of the Chicago Loop. All are gone now, unmourned victims of development.

The storefront door, seen straight on, is the center of each photograph. Depending on how far back the camera is situated, we may see just the two display windows or both sides of the storefront, the space between it and the next building, part of the second floor, or a portion of sidewalk. The image is all squares and rectangles, with the door as a shallow cavity at center. There is no sentimentality in these photographs, nothing that smacks of the picturesque.

We see the storefront windows, how they are decorated, and the curtains and merchandise displayed behind them. All this suggests much about the building interior.

The Clybourn Club, for example, is a neighborhood tavern whose windows are cluttered with advertising for Rheingold beer, Pabst in bottles, Coca-Cola, Meister Brau and 7-Up. A decrepit whiskey poster leans inside one window, but we see no further because the lights are off. It's easy to imagine what goes on in the Clybourn Club -- and what it's like inside.

Another equally suggestive photograph shows a salmon-colored wooden building with a door at the center that may be covered with sheet metal. Another door, ajar at the left, leads to the second floor. The building leans a bit.

Curtains hang behind both first-floor windows and shades are pulled down over the second-floor windows. We see unidentifiable objects in both first-floor windows and trash on the sidewalk. Is this building abandoned? How long will it last?

Callahan was surely amused with some of the storefronts. In one photograph of comic visual overkill, we see a sign reading "Hotel Superior Kitchenette Apartments" at right and a door in the center, with "HOTEL" written across the lintel, "Kitchenets" [sic] above that, and "FURNISHED ROOMS AND APARTMENTS" at the very top. We also glimpse a window display of men's shoes.

How they were made
Peter MacGill, director of Pace MacGill Gallery in New York, met Callahan in 1973, became his dealer, and supervised printing of the storefront photographs. An edition of 12 prints and three artist's proofs was made in New York City. Callahan inspected each print before he signed it.

From the early '40s through the late '90s, Callahan photographed "buildings, shadows, and the spaces between buildings," MacGill explains. He never cropped his images or manipulated them in the darkroom.

The storefronts are "not casual experiments," says MacGill, but were made with "the same intensity and passion" as Callahan's contemporaneous black and white building façade photographs and the portraits of his wife Eleanor.

"Harry would photograph a subject until it lost his attention," says MacGill. "He might come back later and do it a different way. One series of photographs informed the next. His work was an evolution."

"I can't say what makes a picture. I can't say. It's mysterious," Harry Callahan remarked late in life. "You open the shutter and let the world in."

VICTOR M. CASSIDY writes on art from Chicago.