Contributed by FDAC Board Member Sharifa T. Lookman ’17
Harry Callahan (American, 1912-1999)
Providence, 1984. Dye transfer print. Gift of Charles Traub in honor of his Wesleyan associates, colleagues, students, and friends, including Edoardo Ballerini (B.A. 1992), Luigi Ballerini (B.A. 1962), Martha Fleming-Ives (B.A. 2009), Thomas Huhn (Professor of Philosophy and Letters), Jonathan Lipkin (B.A. 1992), Danae Oratowski (B.A. 1992), David Rhodes (B.A. 1968), David Schorr (Professor of Art), and Sarah Schorr (B.A. 2003), 2013. © The Estate of Harry Callahan; courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York
Recently the Wesleyan University Davison Art Center was given seven photographs by the influential American photographer and teacher, Harry Callahan (1912-99). Callahan is best known for his precise prints that quote the everyday: a window, a cityscape, or a woman’s face mid-speech, but with an added journalistic and psychological weight.
One of the recent gifts, Providence, 1984, is a color print that depicts the Rhode Island cityscape. Immediately, the perspective of the photograph is noteworthy: the viewer, and therefore at one point the artist himself, is situated right in the midst of the architecture. Within this context the viewer is not a passive observer, but rather a willing participant in the industrial scene.
The composition further accentuates this notion of industrial form. The right hand side is consumed by a building’s façade that then flows into a layered collage of buildings. Callahan is renowned for his emphasis on line and form, elements that are highlighted in this piece through the repetition of small rectangular windows on the building’s frontal plane. This photograph is particularly unique because it does not have a lot of contrast between light and dark, apart from selective shadows of the building. Instead, holistically the value of the composition is relatively consistent. This formal element also relates to the palette. Even with the addition of the highlight of sky, the palette is relatively monochromatic in neutral grays and blues. The theme of industrialization elevates the image to a societal and environmental study, a quality inherent in much of Callahan’s work.
Callahan rarely wrote his thoughts about his work: instead, his work is documentation in itself, proving to be an exploration into his life, his steps, and his sights. He immortalized the things that caught his eyes, both fleeting and meditative. As a result, his works are simple and evocative, and yet they are laced with and pervaded by a sense of intrigue and inquiry.
Callahan’s photographs will add significantly to the Davison Art Center collection, teaching Wesleyan students, both in and out of the art and art history departments, to stop and look around. In addition to being evocative and captivating, his artistic canon is full of inspirational snapshots that remind us to look up every once in a while and remember the forgotten and appreciate the horrors, beauties, and mysteries that imbue our familiar, and yet somehow forever foreign, surroundings.