All photographs copyrighted by the estate of Harry Callahan.
I recently came upon the work of Harry Callahan from a friend and former workshop student named Chris Giuseppe.
This past weekend, I organized a small meet-up in San Francisco in the mission district (Haus Coffee is lovely) and about 10 of us street photographers met up, exchanged prints, photography books, current projects, and good laughs and catching-up.
This Harry Callahan book that Chris brought (the book is just called “Harry Callahan”) was a big tome– and diverse in its material. Harry Callahan had an incredible career in terms of his photography– he photographed so much different subject matter with so much emotion, soul, and tenacity.
One thing Chris told me that he loved about Harry’s work was his close and intimate relationship with his wife Eleanor– in which he photographed her lovingly and with care.
Considering that I have been trying to photograph my girlfriend and partner Cindy – I was interested. I looked through the work of Harry Callahan, and was fascinated how he excelled in so many different types of photography: portraiture, nudes (of Eleanor), architecture, abstract, landscape, multiple-exposure “trick” photography, as well as his street photography.
Harry was a generalist– he didn’t only photograph one thing specifically. He photographed everything– with equal amounts of passion and gusto.
This interested me a lot because I am generally the type in which I advocate the importance of “specialization”– of focusing on one thing and getting really good at it (before moving onto other things).
But in life (and photography), there are no rules– only guidelines.
So anyways, Chris generously let me borrow his book (thanks Chris) and after going through the introduction of the book (excellent) and of an interview I found of him from 1975 I put together this article. I hope the love, passion, and insights from Harry Callahan can be an inspiration to you (as it was for me):
Biography of Harry Callahan
I personally don’t like writing biographies– much of this section is heavily borrowed/copied/paraphrased from the Harry Callahan book introduction. But here we go:
To get to know the life of Harry Callahan, we need to realize that he had a prolific working life as a photographer (he lived from 1912–1999) and was definitely one of the pioneers of the 20th century American school of photography. He had an outstanding 38 exhibitions at the New York Museum of Modern Art from 1956–1997. The great curator John Szarkowski also curated Harry’s retrospective in 1976 called “Callahan”. Also in 1978, Harry Callahan was the first photographer to represent the United States at the Venice Biennial, which he did with painter Richard Diebenkorn.
Harry also traveled a lot during his life as a photographer. In the states, he took a lot of photos in Detroit, Chicago, Providence, Atlanta, and New York. Internationally he went on trips to France, Italy, Morocco, Portugal, and Ireland.
In terms of his own photography, he saw himself as an “art photographer” and the main themes of his photography included nature, his wife Eleanor (and daughter Barbara), and the city streets.
How did Harry make a living? Well, he started off making a living teaching photography, starting in 1946 when he was hired to teach at the Department of Photography at the Institute of Design in Chicago. In 1961, he was asked to establish and head the Department of Photography at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence. Although he enjoyed teaching, he enjoyed photographing more.
When his photos started to sell in the mid–1970’s, he contemplated retiring so he could devote his entire life to traveling and making pictures. His dream was fulfilled in 1978, and he soon quit making black and white photos and explored color photography. During this period, he made lots of rips to Japan, China, Mexico, and Ireland and he made thousands of Kodachrome transparencies of all these trips.
How did Harry Callahan get started in photography?
So in the previous section we got a quick look into his life as a photographer– but let’s get more into the nitty gritty of how he first picked up a camera and got started in it.
On picking up his first camera
In 1938 a cousin of his wife Eleanor inspired Harry Callahan to buy his own camera. Harry shares the story below:
“He showed me this thing and it looked just like a jewel. That’s what started me— that nice piece of machinery.”
Harry was fascinated by the camera, and he was 26 and an office clerk in the Chrysler Motors mail-order department brought himself a Rolleicord 120 that shot 6×6 film. He learned to develop his film.
On joining the “Chrysler Motors Corporation Camera Club” and the “Detroit Photo Guild”
Initially started at the Chrysler Motors Corporation Camera Club, an amateur club for practical tips. He shares his experience:
“I saw that these people were serious about photography– that photography was important.”
Later on, he moved onto the Detroit Camera Club. This club was a different type of beast– they had a very strict set of rules, manipulated their photos heavily– which turned Harry off:
“They had a fellow, I forget what … I think his name was Fossbender. He came and gave a talk to the Detroit Camera Club. And he did all kinds of manipulation with paper and paper negative stuff. And he painted out pictures and painted in things, and stuff like that. And he says, well, “Now you people, it’s going to take years to ever get to be this good.” And I thought “Oh, God, I don’t want to go through that.” I wasn’t really nuts about what he was doing anyway, but I was impressed.”
In the Detroit Photo Guild, many of the members imposed their stringent rules on others (based on the creative traditions of Pictorialism). The rules included the following: they manipulated their photos strongly, and also had lots of stringent rules on craftsmanship, technique, and laws of composition.
Furthermore, a lot of members in the club spent a lot of time discussing aesthetic theories that dated in the late 19th and beginning 20th centuries (which bored Callahan to death).
Harry hated the stringent set of rules that the Detroit Photo Guild imposed. He wanted to be more spontaneous with his work:
“I made photographs that looked kind of good to me. But I felt kind of frustrated, things seemed all wrong.”
Turning point: meeting Ansel Adams
In August 1941, Ansel Adams held a lecture at the Detroit Photo Guild, followed by a workshop. Ansel Adams was opposed to Pictorialism, as he was one of the founding members of the group f/64 that was established in 1932 that advocated “Straight Photography.” The concept was that they didn’t want to manipulate their photos, and they wanted to show their photos as “faithfully” as possible.
This is what Adams said about great photos:
“A great photograph is a full expression of what one feels about what is being photographed in the deepest sense, and is, thereby, a true expression of what one feels about life in its entirety. And the expression of what one feels should be set forth in terms of simple devotion to the medium.”
Harry shares more in-depth of how Ansel Adams inspired his work:
“[Adams] showed his work and it was all straight photography—sharp and beautiful prints. Seeing Ansel’s work just completely set me free. I asked him what kind of lenses he used, what kind of film he used, what kind of paper he used, and what kind of developer he used. I wrote it down and that was my bible for over a year. The camera was a machine and it could take machine-like pictures which were very beautiful. It could get such texture— you know, that was just magnificent to me. I got an 8×10 camera, and just contact-printed my pictures because that was the sharpest you could get.”
Callahan was fascinated by the sharp and highly-detailed photos (and tonality) so he got a 9x12cm Linhof Technika bellows camera and traded his enlarger for an 8×10’’ Deardorff large-format camera. Callahan also quit the Detroit Photo Guild, and decided to meet like-minded amateurs at Arthur Siegel’s place (where he also benefitted from their large photography library).
Callahan was inspired by Adams’ work and decided that he wanted to become not just a photographer, but also an artist. Harry Callahan also shares how photography filled a “spiritual need” deep inside him:
“I was just ready for it. I figured it out on the basis that I had been religious and I didn’t really believe in religion anymore and I needed to fulfill that spiritual need. Photography did.”
Harry also started off by not caring about what others would think of him and his work. He was just interested in making great art (which would please him):
“I was off by myself, I think, in those days. I thought, ‘Well, sure, I’ll be like Van Gogh and nobody’d ever know about me but Id make really great art.’”
As time went on, Harry started to define himself as an artist and found that photography wasn’t just a hobby anymore– it was something he deeply believed in:
“I found photography as a hobby, and then finally realized that it was something I really believed in. I had believed in the hope of believing in something, and photography was it.”
To completely dedicate him to photography, he gave up his job at General Motors in 1945 and along with his wife Eleanor and friend Todd Webb headed to New York for a “personal fellowship” of several months, which he financed from his own savings.
This is what he thought his photography could do for him— he thought it could express his “feelings and visual relationship to life within me and about me.”
What kind of photographs excited Harry the most? Well– it were the photographs in which the photographer would express him/herself faithfully:
“The photographs that excite me are photographs that say something in a new manner; not for the sake of being different, but ones that are different because the individual is different and the individual expresses himself.”
Harry shares more of his thoughts on his passion for capturing life in this scholarship he applied at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (1946):
“My project could only be to photographs as I felt and desired; to regulate a pleasant form of living: to get up in the morning—free, to feel the trees, the grass, the water, sky or buildings, people—everything that affect us. This, I know, is not a definite project because life itself is not definite, but it could be the part of a lifetime project.”
Through Harry Callahan’s entire life (1938–1990’s) you could argue that his photography “project” was documenting his entire life.
In 1979 (at the age of 67) Harry wrote about his photographic life (looking back). He wrote the importance of constantly moving forward and photographing what he found interesting and important:
“I’ve always liked the idea of the way Walt Whitman wrote his “Leaves of Grass.” He kept working on it all his life. Basically, he kept most of the same ideas, but he was always throwing out some parts and putting in some new things. I’m kind of like that. I just keep shooting. Now, of course, I’m a different person and so I might bring something else to a picture if I attempted the same subject again, but that doesn’t change the validity of the photographs made in the past.”
And if you were curious about “Leaves of Grass” by Walt Whitman– you can read it below:
“The art of art, the glory of expression is simplicity. The greatest poet has less a marked style and is more the channel of thoughts and things without increase or diminution, and is the free channel of him. He swears to his art, I will not be meddlesome, I will not have in my writing any elegance or effect or originality to hang in the way between me and the rest like curtains. I will nothing hang in the way. What I tell I tell for precisely what it is. What I experience or portray shall go from my composition. You shall stand by my side and look in the mirror with me.”
Harry Callahan on subject matter
One thing that sets Harry Callahan’s work apart from many other photographers is just how diverse and multi-faceted his work is. Harry talks more about the variations of subject matter he photographed below:
“It’s the subject matter that counts. I’m interested in revealing the subject in a new way to intensify it. A photo is able to capture a moment that people can’t always see.”
Harry continues by sharing the importance of “wanting to see” and being curious:
“Wanting to see more makes you grow as a person and growing makes you want to show more of life around you.”
Furthermore, he is interested in exploring his subject matter for longer periods of times (often several years):
“In each exploration or concern for the subject, I continue in the area for a great length of time, sometimes a couple of years.”
Harry Callahan on creativity and experimentation
How was Harry Callahan able to stay so inspired, creative, and prolific through his entire life as a photographer?
Well, he first took the long-view in terms of creativity. He didn’t see photography and creativity as just a short-sprint. He valued the importance of having a long creative life, as he said this in 1957:
“Creativity can only be measured by the value of an individual’s whole photographic life from beginning to end.”
On experimentation with printing
When it came to experimentation, Harry Callahan would print his photographs very differently. In this way, he differed from Ansel Adams who wanted to create “faithful prints of reality.” Harry wanted to achieve his own inner-vision through his prints.
For example, he liked contrasty prints, as he talks about his photograph “Weeds in Snow, Detroit, 1943”:
“I tried to print them like a so-called “classic” print— tone, texture, all that— and they didn’t look very good. So after maybe a month I printed them again, and finally I printed them with contrast, very black and white, which was sort of against what Ansel was talking about.”
Harry Callahan goes more in-depth about printing with high contrast:
“If you print with contrast, you begin to see differently; you begin to look at different things to photograph.”
So you can see that because Harry Callahan would experiment with his printing methods, he was able to see the world in a different way. This is how shooting with a different film or post-processing your photos in a certain way can give you a different vision of the world.
On experimentation with color
Harry also experimented with color in his lifetime (which in the beginning, was called “vulgar” by famous and prominent photographers like Walker Evans).
When Harry started to work in color he bought his first 35mm camera, a Contax by Zeiss Ikon. This camera liberated him, due to the small size, flexibility, and the option of using Kodachrome slide film. This was a great liberation for him, as Harry did most of his work on large-format cameras (which were big, bulky, and slow):
“I had gotten sick and tired of looking at the ground glass and wanted to work with a handheld camera. It was a freeing process and I felt I needed the change.”
In 1936 when Kodak made Kodachrome, it was a game changer— as photographers could now produce color images as easily as black and white shots.
However the problem was that while slide transparencies looked good when projected on a projector (think of old home movies) they were very difficult to print (around 1941).
Initially the difficulty of printing color first turned Harry off:
“It seemed absolutely against photography for me to go in the darkroom, take an hour to make one print, just to see what it looked like. You can make a black and white print in a minute and a half. Who wants to take an hour? If you are going to take that long, maybe you should’ve drawn it.”
During that time, the printing process was “dye-transfer” which was a very tricky, technically complex, and expensive process:
“The only good prints I made at the beginning were dye transfer prints which cost $150 for one print. I wasn’t make a log in a month, so I had to leave it alone.”
Therefore when Harry started to first shoot color, he just looked at his transparencies (instead of printing them). It was a bit frustrating for him, as there wasn’t much he could do with his color work (in the beginning):
“I always did color, from the very beginning, but I could never do anything with it.”
Around the 1970’s the technology for printing color became a lot more advanced, accurate, and quicker. This spurred him to work more in color.
Soon to follow, he started to travel the world (and only shot in color) in the Caribbean, Egypt, Switzerland, Tahiti, Australia, Hawaii, Morocco, Japan, Peru, Ireland, and Europe. This is what Callahan wrote in 1977:
“I’ve got about a year and a half’s work that hasn’t been printed. The negatives are developed but they haven’t been printed. So I just feel that I’ve got to stop shooting black and white. So it would be color. I don’t have to develop it.”
So between 1977 and roughly until the end of the 1980s Callahan used only color film.
On his working method
How does Harry Callahan figure out what to photograph, what to pursue, and how to pursue it? His method was this: he just constantly kept shooting, which would help him build his sense of seeing. This is what Harry Callahan said around 1951 when he was shooting color photos:
“I photograph continuously, often without a good idea or a strong feeling. During this time the photos are nearly all poor but I believe they develop my seeing and help later in other photos.”
Harry Callahan also faced a lot of creative difficulties in his life. For example in 1945 after the war ended and he quit his job, he moved to New York City. There he met famous photographers such as Helen Levitt, Lisette Model, Paul Strand, and Bernice Abbott. However he didn’t feel comfortable in his new environment and failed to get a fellowship from the New York Museum of Modern Art. He shares his self-consciousness below:
“I felt very self-conscious around the really big shots there in New York. I felt out of place. we got discouraged and came home— it was quite depressing.”
In Chicago of January 1946, he got a job as a teaching assistant in the foundation course of photography. However he had a tough time:
“It has been very hard for me to teach here at the School. I am completely non-verbal. Photography seems so simple to me that there doesn’t seem much to say.”
John Szarkowski mentioned him as sociable and friendly, but introverted:
“One senses in Callahan a large capacity for privacy— for an interior life unshared even by those closest to him.”
However he stayed and started to teach advanced courses, and took over the department from 1951–1961 (when he moved on to the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence).
On his photographic life with Eleanor
As I mentioned earlier in this article, I have been very drawn to Harry Callahan’s photographic life with his wife Eleanor. In this section we will delve more into his relationship with his wife, and he got started photographing her.
Harry and Eleanor Callahan were both married for an incredible 63 years. They first met at a blind date in 1933, when Harry was employed as a shipping clerk in the Parts Division at Chrysler Motors in Detroit, Michigan. Eleanor (at the time) was a secretary in t he auditing department of the Export Division. Neither Harry nor Eleanor had a college degree at the time.
In 1936 (presumably after some romantic interest) they got married and started their life together. Eleanor was well established as a secretary and earned a stable income that matched (and sometimes was more than) Harry’s. Eleanor also helped Harry manage his business affairs (she was probably much better at it than Harry), which allowed Harry to pursue his artistic endeavors.
From the beginning, Eleanor understood Harry’s passion for photography and gave financial and emotional support that fueled his work.
In terms of photographing Eleanor as a subject, he photographed her extensively for longer than 20 years, mostly from 1941–1963.
So why did Harry decide to choose Eleanor as a subject? Well, Harry was only able to photograph things, people, and concepts that were familiar and close to him. This is what he said:
“I can’t photograph someone I don’t know.”
Harry photographed Eleanor constantly: nude and clothed, indoors and outdoors, in public parks and city streets, at the beach and in the woods, at sand dunes and at the lake, at their family home and at the houses of relatives.
How did Eleanor feel about being photographed all the time? This is what she had to say:
“It was part of our daily lives for 25 years. He took pictures of me wherever we happened to be. I might be cooking dinner and Harry would say, ‘Eleanor, the light is beautiful right now. Come on, I’d like to take a picture of you.’ And we’d go make a photograph. Or we might be at our cottage and we’d go into the fields where it was isolated, and take pictures of the nude in nature.”
Harry was once asked why he didn’t photograph models or anybody else. This is what he had to say:
“I couldn’t photograph a model because that seemed artificial to me…so I felt very relaxed photographing Eleanor. I didn’t feel self-conscious and she never made me feel that way.”
7 Lessons Harry Callahan has taught me about street photography (and life)
In this section below, I will share some more insights that Harry Callahan has taught me about street photography (and life):
1. Go on adventures
In street photography, I love the feeling of going on a sense of adventure. This comes to me most vividly when I am traveling or exploring unknown or unfamiliar places.
This is what Harry Callahan said about the adventure of photography:
“I wish more people felt that photography was an adventure the same as life itself and felt that their individual feelings were worth expressing.” – 1946
I love this excerpt that Harry shares for several reasons:
First, he treats photography just like life: he is interested in going on adventures for both.
Secondly, he emphasizes the importance for individuals to share their own feelings– and ensures us that our emotions are worth sharing.
In another interview he expands on the importance of adventuring in photography:
“I think all the time I’m doing it I feel like I’m adventuring in some way. Looking for something. I’m not sure. Sometimes things look like they ought to be good, you know, I mean something looks right. But that doesn’t always make it come out right either. And sometimes it doesn’t … you don’t know what it’s going to be and it comes out real good and that starts you on a whole new way of thinking and seeing.”
Treat your life (and photography) like an adventure. Nobody wants to go on a boring adventure. Go to places that interest you (and also scares you). Step outside of your comfort zone. Don’t just live life in a monotonous way in which you’re just doing the same thing over and over again.
Variety is the spice of life.
Add variety to your street photography by exploring different neighborhoods, by traveling, or by exploring different subject matter that interests you. If you’re walking on the streets, don’t just shoot the same streets over and over again.
Explore unfamiliar streets. Go down certain alleys or streets that pique your interest.
Also express your emotions through your photography. Don’t be worried that your photographs might feel “over-sentimental.” The only way that photographs are memorable is if they are emotional.
If a viewer looked at your photographs, how could your photographs reflect how you see the world? How are your photographs unique from the photographs of others? What emotions exude from your photographs? How do your photographs make your viewer feel?
2. “Photograph your way out”
When Harry Callahan was asked how he faced limitations and difficulties in his photography he said the following:
“Don’t you worry, I’ll photograph my way out.”
I’m sure you have hit “photographer’s block” or any other creative slump in your career. We have all experienced it. I know I have.
Whenever I personally his these slumps in my photography, I am often tempted to buy new cameras or daydream about traveling.
However I have found a much cheaper solution: just go out and make photos.
Whenever I am dissatisfied with my cameras or lust after a new camera– I just go out and shoot. And when I’m in the “flow” of shooting in the streets, I totally forget about everything else. The act of shooting re-inspires me.
I think a common mistake many photographers make is this: we think that we should shoot only when we feel inspired.
I think the opposite is true: we should first shoot, which leads us to feeling inspired.
What do I mean by this?
Well, let’s say that you are sitting on your couch at home (maybe watching Netflix) and you’re thinking to yourself: “Man, I should be out making photographs, not being a fatass on the couch.” You might then make excuses about your camera not being good enough, not feeling inspired, blah blah blah. But rather than waiting for inspiration to strike like a lightning bolt, just go out of your apartment and go on a walk.
When you go on a walk, just start photographing anything that moderately piques your interest. When you start clicking, your creative engine will start warming up (just like warming up a car, you wouldn’t want to go racing at full-throttle without warming up).
As you start to click more, your eye will suddenly feel more active. You will start seeing more interesting things.
Another tip: I often “see” more interesting things when I have a camera around my neck or in my hand (not when it is in my bag, or even worse, at home collecting dust on a shelf).
So try to make it a habit of always having your camera around your neck (or in your hand). I personally don’t think it is enough to just have your camera with you in your bag. It is useless in your bag, as it isn’t cocked and ready to shoot.
If you’re used to a monotonous commute or a certain routine, try to train your eyes to see. Try to make more photographs in a day (if you shoot film, try to shoot a roll of film a day for 30 days straight). Or even easier: try to shoot everyday on your smartphone and upload a photograph to Instagram at least once a day (but not of your food or lattes).
Photograph those close and intimate with you. Take a tip from Harry Callahan and photograph your partner, kids, or friends. Photograph what is familiar to you.
So whenever you’re feeling a creative slump in your photography, just keep making shots. You will be able to “photograph your way out” of this problem.
3. Have photography fulfill you spiritually
I myself go through spiritual phases on and off. I am Catholic, go to mass (most) Sundays, have taught Sunday school, been an altar boy (never been fondled). But as a whole, I do believe in a greater power, believe in the importance of spirituality amongst human beings and communities, and believe that spirituality is an important part to thrive as a human being.
You don’t need to be “religious” or follow any sort of organized religion. Just do what feels right to you. “Spiritual” means many different things to many different people. To some people it is meditation, to some people it is being mindful, and to some people it is organized religion (as a side note, I highly recommend “Waking up” by Sam Harris if you want to learn how to be “spiritual” without religion).
Anyways, one thing I never thought about was how photography isn’t just about making photos. It is something deeper. It is about experiencing reality in a unique and deep, almost spiritual sense.
Harry Callahan shared his personal thoughts of how he turned away from religion (which caused him to feel spiritually empty). However once he discovered photography, he was able to fill that spiritual hole:
“I think one thing that I seemed to feel in terms of my photography was that when I was younger my mother was pretty strong on religion. And, well, I felt very spiritual about that, you know. I didn’t know anything. I’d just go to Sunday School every Sunday. But at a certain stage in my life I felt like I wasn’t doing anything and felt, well, I should do something to benefit humanity. And I had friends, and we talked about religion and they finally talked me out of it. [laughs] And I agreed with them, in that it was just another form of witch doctor to me, you know.”
Harry continues with how photography became his spiritual outlet:
“I felt I had to have something to take that place. And with photography, when I happened to get started in photography, all of a sudden it did that for me. And that’s the way I always feel about my photography is that I want it to have something spiritual in it that makes somebody feel something. I’m not interested to any real extent in saying something in the sense of, ‘This is a bad society’ or social, anything like that.”
And what was the ultimate goal that he wanted to do with his photography? Harry shares how photography can “move the spirit in human beings”:
“I always figured that if it moved the spirit in human beings, then that’s what I wanted to do. And I think that’s the way I listen to music and that’s the way I read and everything else, is to be moved that way.”
Now I’m not saying that we should suddenly turn to photography as our religion. Don’t quit your local religious organization and suddenly start hailing the Leica (although some photographers I know treat their camera brands like a cult).
What I am trying to advocate is the fact that photography isn’t just making photographs. It is something deeper– almost something spiritual. You are expressing your soul, experience of the world, and vision with the rest of the world. If you publish your photographs online (or in print), exhibit your photos, or make books– you are a social photographer. You make photographs to inspire other people.
Whenever I look at a great photograph, it stirs something in my heart and in my soul.
A truly great photograph can change the world I see and perceive the world. A truly great photograph fills some sort of emotional need in my soul. A truly great photograph can change the world through changing the minds and actions of the viewers.
So remember: photography can and should be something deeper. You want photography to fulfill an inner-desire. Otherwise, why would you photograph?
To re-iterate: if you feel empty and lost in your life, perhaps you can turn to photography to fulfill that spiritual need.
4. Follow the work of those who inspire you
We all gain inspiration from somebody else. Any photographer who says that they aren’t inspired by anyone else is talking bullshit.
I also think this is why the philosophy of purposefully not looking at others’ work (not to corrupt your own work) is silly.
As human beings, we cannot exist in a vacuum. We need the work of others to inspire us.
For Harry Callahan, he was first really moved by the work of Ansel Adams. When Harry Callahan first saw Adams’ work this is what he said:
“[Ansel Adams] showed his work, and it was all straight photography — sharp and beautiful prints and everything else, and that just completely set me free. And then both my friend Todd and I were just … we just went all nuts on photography. We really felt confident in ourselves and everything else.”
Ansel Adams had a huge impact and influence on Harry Callahan. Adams’ inspired Harry to go out and shoot, and “go nuts on photography.” Furthermore, a lot of Harry’s aesthetic sensibilities (wanting sharp and highly detailed photographs) were inspired by Ansel Adams.
But although Harry was deeply inspired by Ansel Adams– both of their work differed highly. Harry Callahan was mostly drawn to architecture, people, and street scenes (in the city) while Ansel Adams was drawn mostly to nature.
Therefore what Harry Callahan did was gain inspiration from Ansel Adams in terms of his working methods and technical details– but made work that was genuine and authentic. Harry photographed whatever interested him, and although he was inspired by Ansel Adams, he didn’t get caught up wanting to replicate exactly what Ansel Adams did (in terms of subject matter).
So don’t feel any sort of guilt or anxiety of being a “copy-cat” of any other photographers out there. Gain as much inspiration as you can from other photographers– and perhaps when you’re starting off, directly try to imitate them.
But the funny thing is that no matter how hard you try to imitate another photographer– you will never be a perfect clone of them. Why not? Because you are both different human beings, with different life experiences, and different ways of looking at the world.
So go borrow the technical approach and working methods of another photographer– but try to photograph subject matter that interests you. Photograph what you are passionate about, and don’t let this silly nonsense of being a “copycat” get in your way.
5. Have feelings in your photographs
As humans, we are an emotional creature. We aren’t robots– nobody out there is purely “rational”.
In an interview, Harry Callahan was asked the following question:
“When something’s not working, when you look at a photograph, what does it seem to lack?”
To that, Harry Callahan responded:
“It just has no feeling, no spirit to it at all.”
A street photograph without any emotion is dead.
A lot of psychologists have also recently shown that emotion is one of the strongest triggers to memory. Therefore if you make an emotional street photograph, you will also make a memorable street photograph.
When I’m shooting on the streets, I often look for emotion in my subjects. I look for hand gestures, body language, and facial gestures that I can emotionally relate to and feel empathetic towards.
Furthermore, I use the emotion of fear to know what is worth photographing. Which means, when I see an interesting scene, I generally feel afraid to photograph it. My stomach starts to churn, and I feel nervous. That is the moment I know I have to make a photograph.
Also you can use emotions in the editing phase. When you’re looking through your photos in Lightroom (or prints), look for the emotions. If a photograph doesn’t bring a strong sense of emotion or “spirit” in them– perhaps you should edit them out.
6. Process (or print) the way you want
When it comes to photography, there are a bazillion ways to process or print your work.
In this field, how your photos “look” is highly subjective. Ultimately you want to make your photos look the way you want them to look. There is no objectively “right” way to make a “faithful” print. We all see the world differently (some of us are colorblind) and ultimately we see the world in our own subjective way.
Harry Callahan shares how he prints depending on how he wants them to look– and that there isn’t a “standard” way to do this:
“I may print it very contrasty or I may print it very soft. I don’t like the idea that there’s supposed to be a standard way for a print.”
I have my personal tastes in terms of what I think is aesthetically “beautiful” or “pleasing.” For example, I hate low-contrast photos, selective-color photos, or HDR photographs.
But ultimately that is my own “cup of tea.” For example, I love mint ice cream but my girlfriend Cindy hates it. Does this mean that Cindy is somehow not an ice cream connoisseur and has bad taste? Not at all. Our tastes are just different. Some people like vanilla and some prefer chocolate. Some like both.
In photography some people prefer color, and some prefer black and white. Some photographers prefer highly saturated colors, while others prefer more muted colors. Some photographers prefer high-contrast black and whites, while others like having more tones.
However you want to print or process your work, just follow your gut and heart. Depict reality however you want it to look based on your post-processing or printing process. Show your own subjective reality with the rest of the world, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
7. Do a “life’s photography”
I think in today’s digital world, we are so obsessed with speed. We want to get things done quickly, and often we look in the short-term of things.
However what differs Harry Callahan from a lot of other photographers is that he took the long approach– he wanted to dedicate his entire life to photography, and didn’t concern himself with the short-term fads of his times.
Harry wanted to continue to learn more about himself as a human being through photography – and to continue to learn more about photography itself. He was constantly curious his entire life. He shares his motivation for photography below:
“I want to do a life’s photography. And I want to grow in it and I know that I learn more all the time, and I know that that has something to do with it.”
Take the long approach in your photography, and see how you can create a body of work that you will be happy about when you’re on your deathbed.
Don’t worry too much about the fads in photography. Follow what interests you, and follow your own gut, intuition, and voice.
So when it comes to photography projects, don’t just think about days, weeks, or months. Think years, think decades.
Live a life without regrets. Photograph what you are passionate about, what you want to be remembered for, and photograph what you want to remember.
Make your photography personal, and be happy, jolly, keep learning, and push your photography. Don’t stop learning, don’t stop growing, and don’t stop evolving. Stay curious to the very end.
Books by Harry Callahan
- Harry Callahan Restrospective ~ $45 USD (highly recommend this book)
- Harry Callahan At Work ~ $54 (a great book if you want to learn more about the working methods of Harry Callahan)
Photographers similar to Harry Callahan
If you like the work of Harry Callahan, I recommend learning more from these masters below: