H.C. in D.C.

A couple of weeks ago I visited the National Gallery in Washington DC. This was not first, nor second or third time I’ve been there, yet each visit continues to astonish. It holds an enormous collection of great historic art that is no less than monumental. And the National Gallery contains just a fraction of the great treasures to be discovered among the numerous other national museums in Washington D.C. All are accessible free of charge and each is a magnificent example of the wonders that can be accomplished when public resources are cooperatively and intelligently pooled. Collectively our national museums represent a great return on investment for the public.

A current special exhibit, running through 4 march, 2012, is “Harry Callahan at 100.” Callahan was an outstanding midcentury innovator of photography. Although he never got the limelight as some other more well known names, he should have, as he was a consummate experimenter and a first rate craftsman in the highest sense of the term. This exhibit is a chronological retrospective of Callahan’s career starting with his work in Detroit, Michigan, through the last images produced during his travels abroad after retiring from the Rhode Island School of Design, where he founded its photography department.

Curiously, the pieces with the biggest impact for me, the ones I found most powerful and expressive, were the smallest ones. Some could be described as tiny, approximately 5cm x 7cm (2″x3″). These minuscule images summon one’s attention and invite contemplation, much more so than the largest pieces made during his RISD years. In every aspect these small images prevailed, compositionally, tonally, expressively. The delicacy of the grays, the impeccable highlights and richly detailed shadows demonstrate how a master craftsman makes a fine photographic print. In contrast, the larger works are heavy handed, excessively contrasty and in some cases over-printed, almost as if done by another artist. Generally, larger images attract more attention, but in this case, their insight is shallow, their expanse narrow. They lack the subtle sensitivity to the subject displayed in his previous work from earlier years. After retirement though, the photographs from those later years recovered the vision shown during the Detroit and Chicago periods. The leisure of retirement must have reignited inspiration. His muses also pushed him into color photography. He took to color with an instinctive knack, as if by second nature, not common for someone steeped in monochrome. ‘Seeing’ in black and white takes years to develop. Switching one’s color vision back on, and learning how to effectively harness color, takes an effort only the best of photographers can pull out of themselves.

If you’re in the D.C. area, make a point to stop by the National Gallery to see first hand the work of one of the greats. Harry Callahan’s photography is on view through 4 march in the west wing (old building) on the ground floor. Discover for yourself how captivating and commanding small photographs can be when coming from the eye of a master.

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