The other evening I read the text by Keith Davis in the Todd Webb monograph that was part of the TOP photo book offer a few months back. It’s an excellent essay. Davis seems to have a real handle on writing about photographers and their work. However, what struck me was his mention of the inaugural show at the Hallmark Gallery in New York, back in 1964. Well over a hundred prints by Harry Callahan.
I saw that show, and it made an immense impression on me. I was a high school kid wandering around New York with my Pentax H3, looking for stuff to take pictures of. I’d never heard of Callahan. He wasn’t the sort of photographer who got profiled in Popular Photography magazine. The pictures bowled me over. I looked at everything, left the building and walked around a bit, then came back and looked at everything all over again. Slowly.
The first thing that struck me was how ordinary the subject matter was. Unspectacular, undramatic. Then I had the grok. These things weren’t pictures of stuff at all. They were, themselves, stuff. Objects in their own right. They didn't exist to record a building, or a person, or some blades of grass. They took that subject matter and transformed it into a new thing, a photograph. I even think I got an inkling of a notion that later became pivotal for me—that every bit of the picture is important, every bit of it has to work. There is no subject vs background, there’s just everything.
The titles also struck me. Every picture was titled with the name of a city. A radiator, a window, a nude woman, all might be titled, “Rochester, New York.” To this day I follow that convention for the pictures I post here on the blog.