Harry Callahan at the Tate

A few days ago I went to Tate’s Modern and Britain; they had respectively work by Harry Callahan, William Eggleston and Diado Moriyama. Rich visual pickings galore! First off, I’m a huge fan of Eggleston and Moriyama so it was a thrill to see work by both on one day. I was, however, until yesterday much less familiar with Callahan’s work. I know that this will have some people recoiling in horror, but his work really had passed me by. I knew the name, knew some pictures, had seen books on the shelves of many a notable bookshop, and yet yesterday was the first time I had really seen his work. What a revelation.

I’m not going to go into any details about individual pictures, I’m still getting to know them and besides, there are far to many fantastic images to write about in the Tate show.

Apart from the actual quality of his work, what struck me most was its breadth: Street photography, portraiture, landscapes, architecture and abstracts made from all of these. Oh, and he does all of this in black and white, and using a variety of formats. He is the style pedants’ nightmare!

Yes there are broad themes in his work: the city, his wife and nature, which he pursued through his working life, but he explored them with obsession and a creative inquisitiveness that sometimes I find lacking in more contemporary work. As Peter MacGill of Pace/MacGill has said “..he typically worked on a subject for a period of time, until he reached a dead end, and then he would either change the subject or change the camera…”. (Watch him speak about Harry Callahan: HERE).

In a time where photographers are pretty much forced to have a ‘style’, (or a consistently recognizable visual brand), if they want to succeed in the market place it really is a joy to see such a skilled photographer exploring photography, while seemingly lacking artifice. What is also most apparent is the influence Callahan has had over photography. Walking around the four rooms of photographs it is impossible not to see the work of more contemporary photographers.

So, if you’re in London, get yourself down to Tate Modern and have a look at Harry Callahan then pop up to the fourth floor and check William Eggleston out.

First Published 08.03.2014

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