ART & DESIGN: The Artist’s Wife: A Constant Muse Who Never Said No

“I never refused when he wanted to take a picture,” said Eleanor Callahan, the 91- year-old widow of the photographer Harry Callahan. “I never complained, whatever I was doing. If he said: ‘Come quick, Eleanor — there’s a good light,’ I was right there.”


The artistic fruit of their 63-year marriage is on view in “Harry Callahan: Eleanor,” an exhibition at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. Until Callahan’s death in 1999, she was his most constant and compliant subject, posing for countless portraits, figure studies and nudes.


The show includes about 125 photographs, most made before the 1960s when the couple and their daughter, Barbara, also featured in this show, moved to Providence, R.I., where Callahan established the photography department at the Rhode Island School of Design. (“Harry Callahan: Eleanor” will be shown there next fall.)


The earliest image in the exhibition is “Detroit,” a black-and-white, shadow- dappled portrait made in 1941, the year Callahan attended an Ansel Adams workshop and realized his calling. The most recent is “Tokyo,” a 1983 color print made on one of their frequent foreign sojourns: it shows Eleanor asleep, wrapped in blankets in a hotel bed.

About two-thirds of the photographs were in a 1984 traveling show titled “Eleanor and Barbara”; purchased by the collector Nicholas Pritzker, these have other collections and many from the estate — have never been exhibited, including a family album that holds many early, unpublished pictures.


For Julian Cox, the show’s curator, one highlight of the material from Callahan’s estate is a single print of a surprisingly sensual nude, made in Chicago around 1948- 49. In his other nudes, Mr. Cox said, formal analysis was Callahan’s primary concern. But this image offers “a view of the body which you don’t really see in the rest of his series of Eleanor.”


Her body, from breasts to feet, is shown in a foreshortened close-up, as she sprawls languidly on a rumpled bed; in the corner you see the very edge of her hand, with one red-varnished pinky, and her wedding ring.

Nothing in Callahan’s rigorous compositions was ever unintentional, Mr. Cox noted, so that particular detail makes it clear that “it’s not just a body, it’s not just an object: it’s his wife.”


As Mrs. Callahan has often recounted, it was a photograph that brought the couple together. In 1933 she was a 17-year-old secretary at Chrysler Motors in Detroit, where he worked in the parts department and was about to enter Michigan State University. One day her cousin’s boyfriend turned up badly scratched after a game of grass hockey, and showed her a snapshot of the player responsible. As she tells it, she exclaimed, “Oh, he’s good-looking — I’d like to meet him!” and her friend duly set them up.


“When I saw him, I was all excited, and that was the beginning,” she said in a telephone interview from her home in Atlanta. “We just seemed to click.”


Click is the operative word, because Mrs. Callahan remembers photography as endlessly entwined in their relationship. Asked to recall his first picture of her, she responded: “Heavens to Betsy, I don’t remember! He always had a camera in his hand.”


Actually, Callahan began making pictures after he left college, they married and he returned to Chrysler, where he joined the company camera club. That changed their lives. 2/5

9/20/2017 Harry Callahan: Eleanor - Photography - The New York Times

In 1941, after the workshop with Adams, Callahan decided to pursue a life in art — a radical move in his blue-collar environment. He began taking time off to make pictures. In 1945 the couple tried living in New York, where he visited Alfred Stieglitz, before settling in Chicago. The next year in that city Laszlo Moholy-Nagy invited him to teach photography part time at the Institute of Design, and the Callahans joined the modernist avant-garde.

Chicago is where the bulk of the Eleanor photographs were made, but Mrs. Callahan kept working. While her husband was out photographing skyscrapers and pedestrians, she would be at her desk as an executive secretarial assistant for the founder of Kemper Insurance, and later with other companies.

“I liked working,” she said. “It’s a good thing I was industrious. A lot of my money would go into photography. That suited me fine.”

But if her day job helped pay for photographic equipment and supplies, on evenings and weekends she became a muse. “He’d tell me what he wanted me to do — cross your legs, by the window,” she said. “I’m no model, so I wouldn’t know whether to put my foot by the radiator. He had to tell me. He’d say, ‘Now raise your right foot up.’”

Callahan was famously mute when it came to explicating his photographs, and Mrs. Callahan is no different. Yet when fixed in the coolly minimalist eye of his camera, she assumed a dizzying range of identities. When she is lounging naked, in a forest or at home, her curves may suggest an abstract volume or a 19th-century odalisque. Standing in an overcoat on a city street or alongside trees, she can resemble a stern Soviet worker or an impish sprite.


In one series, she floats with unbound hair in Lake Michigan, rising like a water nymph. Callahan was a master of the multiple exposure; in many shots his wife’s body is layered with branches or water, so that she seems to meld with nature itself.


When Barbara was born in 1950, she was quickly incorporated into the family calling. Her father’s first photograph of her, “Barbara, Chicago” (1950), shows only the top


of her head swaddled in a white blanket, as if crowning from her mother’s womb. In other early images, she and Eleanor play or nap together. She has an early memory of her father handing her a Brownie camera, hoping to see the world through her eyes.




“He wanted me to take photos of what I liked,” she said. “But I was such a baby that I just threw it around.”

From age 2, she began posing with her mother for the so-called “formal” snapshots, shot in and around Chicago with a tripod-mounted 8-by-10 view camera. He shot many on weekends in the deserted downtown, their tiny figures looking Giacometti-esque in the urban void.


Now living with her husband and children in Atlanta, near her mother, Barbara Callahan Hollinger remembers those sessions as excruciatingly boring. “He did not do these things quickly,” she said.

When she was about 8, she rebelled: “I just got to the point where I wanted to go play, and he understood that.”

But her mother continued to pose. “My mother’s thoughts and desires were what Harry’s were,” she said. “He was lucky in that.”


Still, you wonder about her willingness to pose nude so frequently, often outdoors, and Mrs. Callahan doesn’t hesitate to raise the subject herself. “I always had the feeling that Harry would never do anything that was out of line,” she said. “I think they were very poetic, the nudes.”


In 1977, after the market for his work had taken off, Callahan retired from teaching. “He turned to me and said: ‘Eleanor, you don’t have to work anymore. We’re doing all right,’” she recalled. “I said, ‘O.K., if that’s what you want.’”

Today she insists that “all the photos are really of his making — I didn’t do anything.” But she was there, wearing a chic new white dress, when the show opened at the High. Though her eyesight is failing, she examined every picture thoroughly. “I thought they were great,” she said. “I like the way he photographed.”



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