A constant presence

Medium and muse come together in Callahan exhibit

Harry Callahan's many photographs of his wife Eleanor include this one taken in New York in 1945. Harry Callahan's many photographs of his wife Eleanor include this one taken in New York in 1945. (COURTESY OF PACE/MACGILL GALLERY; HARRY CALLAHAN ESTATE)
By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / November 29, 2008
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PROVIDENCE - There have been two great husband-and-wife acts in photographic history. The better-known is Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O'Keeffe. Over the course of 20 years, he took more than 350 photographs of her. The other is Harry and Eleanor Callahan. He took so many photographs of her it's impossible to give an accurate tally. It's equally impossible to imagine Callahan's career without those photographs as part of it.

The Eleanor pictures not only helped populate Callahan's art. They reflected so many other elements of it: his interest in pure form, landscape and nature, the play of light and shadow, the use of multiple exposures. The 95 photographs that make up "Harry Callahan: Eleanor," which runs at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art through Feb. 15, are products of a decades-long investigation of a medium no less than a muse.

These pictures also provide a welcome counterweight within Callahan's body of work. There's an inherent austerity to his art which Eleanor's presence within a frame compensates for. Even so, there's a slightly drained quality to these pictures, an absence of exaltation. They suggest totality rather than intensity: a sense that no one else in the world exists other than these two people (or three, when Callahan photographed Eleanor with their daughter, Barbara). "It becomes just another part of your day," Eleanor said of posing so much for her husband; "It was a very natural thing to do."

That naturalness created an otherness. At what point of accumulation does a body of images take on a life of its own? "When I look back on those photographs," Eleanor has said, "I don't see them as myself. I see them as very beautiful pictures, but I don't think, 'That's me.' . . . They are something separate from me."

That separateness is fitting. Form always interested Callahan more than feeling did. So much of the success of the Eleanor pictures lies in how he could simply take feeling for granted and concentrate on form. Despite their consistent understatement, there is at least one thing patently lavish about the Eleanor pictures: the love in them.

Callahan's photographs of his wife are a vast theme and variations. She's the theme, and he provides the variations: Eleanor nude, clothed, in close-up, in the distance, in the city, in the country, in the water, with their daughter, and on and on. The effect is one of constant, low-key exploration. Clearly, Callahan never tired of Eleanor - or the joining of his eye and her appearance. Nor do we.

They met on a blind date, in Detroit, in 1933. Their marriage lasted 63 years, until his death, in 1999. Now living in Atlanta, Eleanor came to RISD to see the show earlier this month.

She provided most of the income for much of their lives, working as an executive secretary. Maybe her breadwinner status helps account, at least in part, for the feeling of mutuality in the pictures. Callahan was in complete charge - not just of working the camera, but also choosing when and where to shoot and even how Eleanor should pose. Yet there is an unmistakable sense of partnership here.

Eleanor may not have herself been an artist, as O'Keeffe was. But her occupation mattered in the Callahan household. It was only after Callahan came to RISD, in 1961, to found the school's photography program, that he could finally pull his own financial weight. He taught there until 1997, and among his former students are Emmet Gowin and Henry Horenstein.

Callahan first photographed Eleanor in 1941 and did so most intensively between 1947 and 1963. She was handsome rather than pretty - like O'Keeffe, in that respect - with a strong face, forthright dark eyes, and abundant hair. The squareness of her face ideally suited Callahan's formalist bent. (The center part in her scalp can at times seem almost Pythagorean.) Eleanor's face assumes an aspect of fecund geometry, a meeting place of curves and angles that manages to be simultaneously abstract and profoundly human.

Big buttocked, wide hipped, full breasted, Eleanor's appearance often recalls that of a latter-day fertility figure or, better yet, a Gaston Lachaise sculpture made flesh and rendered in two dimensions. Although rarely erotic, these photographs can possess a striking physicality.

Enhancing the quality of "Harry Callahan: Eleanor" is how RISD has mounted it. It's in two rooms, one of them the museum's new Bill and Nancy Tsiaras Photography Gallery, the first space here solely dedicated to the medium. Ninety-five pictures in two comfortably sized rooms would seem to risk wall overload. The effect, though, is one of satisfying fullness. The intimacy of the images helps, as does the fact most of them are small. The presence of a Callahan family photo album in a display case further encourages a homey feel. It's a splendid item, overstuffed and looking well thumbed, as one might expect from such an object of domestic affection. Its existence might seem incongruous. But poets make grocery lists and composers whistle. Why shouldn't photographers have albums for their family photos?

Mark Feeney can be reached at


At: the Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art, 224 Benefit St., Providence, through Feb. 15. Call 401-454-6500 or go to

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