Harry Callahan: Biography & Photography

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Sometimes career inspiration comes from unexpected places. In this lesson, learn about photographer Harry Callahan, who was working as a clerk at Chrysler Motors when he bought a camera and found his calling. His images of nature, city scenes, and people are fascinating explorations of photography as art form.


Harry Callahan (1912 -1999) didn't plan on a career in the arts. Born in Detroit to a family of farmers and auto industry workers, he attended Michigan State University and took classes in chemical engineering. But he didn't finish college -- studying wasn't his thing. Instead, he took a job as a clerk at the Chrysler Motor Parts Corporation in 1936.

Working in a factory might not have seemed an auspicious choice, but it opened two important doors for him. In 1938, he bought his first camera and joined the Chrysler Photo Club (a hobby group at the plant), to learn how to use it. And he was introduced to a young plant secretary after she'd seen a photo of him and thought he was cute. They married, and Eleanor Callahan became one of his primary photographic subjects for the next fifty years.

Wanting to learn more, Callahan soon joined the Detroit Photo Guild. In 1941, he met Ansel Adams at a workshop the famed photographer was giving in Detroit. Adam's images were dramatic plays of light and shadow. Callahan was inspired and felt drawn to photography. He went to New York City, met pioneering photographer Alfred Stieglitz, and decided to pursue photography as his profession.

Photographer and Teacher

Callahan might have been self-taught, but he was a highly-disciplined perfectionist who took photos tirelessly in pursuit of his goals. He worked every day, walking the city streets in search of inspiration. He always had his camera with him, and his wife remembers that sometimes he would just tell her to stop what she was doing to pose for him.

Callahan's skill developed rapidly, and he caught the attention of others, including photojournalist Arthur Siegel. In 1946, Siegel and Hungarian art theorist and modernist photographer Laszlo Moholy-Nagy invited Callahan to teach at the Institute of Design in Chicago. Moholy-Nagy had come of age in Europe after World War I, when modernist art movements like Cubism and Suprematism radically changed how artists created images and freed them from having to paint recognizable objects.

Callahan absorbed some of this thinking and you can see it in his work. He viewed photography as a lens through which one could observe the world, but didn't feel the need to stick to the idea of photographs as documents of events or people. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, this was not how most people viewed photography -- among fine artists, the idea of taking pictures with a camera was considered a lesser art than painting or drawing. Photography could be used to develop ideas, but only a few artists (such as Ansel Adams) were pursuing it as an art form in its own right.

Eleanor, New York, 1945
Eleanor, New York

Callahan was important to the development of photography as an art form; his work challenged established thinking. He wasn't interesting in gauzy images, sappy portraits, or sentimental snapshots. He experimented with imagery (close-ups, unusual angles, blurred figures) and film formats, from 35 mm to 8 x 10 inch format. Callahan sometimes made multiple exposures while the film was still in the camera. He abstracted the images, or made them look more like patterns than recognizable objects, by capturing plays of light and shadow. His wife Eleanor, and later their daughter Barbara, were often subjects in his work.

Chicago, 1950
Chicago, 1950

Look at this photograph of Eleanor. She stands matter-of-fact in front of a factory complex, a dark figure against a light background. She's not posing, not smiling, but simply there, arms slightly bent. Windblown strands of her hair add a hint of movement against the vertical lines of the factory.

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