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Harry Callahan, Chicago, 1950, gelatin silver print, 8-3/8" × 12-1/2" (21.3 cm × 31.8 cm), image, 11" × 14" (27.9 cm × 35.6 cm), paper © The Estate of Harry Callahan

Photography in Focus

Harry Callahan

Chicago

By Kaelan Kleber, Associate Director
May 20, 2020

I had an urge to photograph people on the streets…and to do it freely. First I shot recognizable action, people talking to each other, laughing together, etc. This had a literal value which has never been satisfying to me. While shooting this way I found that people walking were lost in thought and this was what I wanted. – Harry Callahan

Around 1950, Harry Callahan produced Women Lost in Thought, a series of candid close-ups of anonymous female pedestrians on Chicago’s State Street. Uniting his quest for conceptual expression and devotion to precise craft, this innovative body of work explores a central theme in the photographer’s oeuvre: the modern urban landscape and its inhabitants.

Throughout his six-decade career, Callahan repeatedly returned to the same subjects—his wife Eleanor and daughter Barbara, nature, and the city; likewise, he continually developed new ways to depict them using an array of equipment and techniques. To inconspicuously create the full-frame faces of Women Lost in Thought while on foot and in close range, Callahan employed a Leica 35mm camera with a 90mm telephoto lens, pre-focused to a distance at which an average head would fill the horizontal negative. Callahan’s dexterity enabled him to approach a subject and know exactly when the image would be both in focus and full-frame. With relatively little light beneath the “L” train where the photographs were taken, he then pushed the technical limitations of the medium even further by developing his film to the maximum degree of contrast and density the low light would allow.

Deeply shadowed and at times brooding, these images transcend the external cityscape to render visible the internal urban state of mind. As psychological portraits of the city, void of any direct reference to its physical architectural space, they capture moments of introspection and isolation amid the crowds and traffic of the modern metropolis. In Chicago (1950), shown here, Callahan’s subject remains unaware of his presence, her gaze detached and expression uncomposed as the light catches her cheekbone and earring. Though solitary and seemingly impersonal, the work presents a powerfully resonant portrayal of the post-war American spirit.

Though solitary and seemingly impersonal, the work presents a powerfully resonant portrayal of the post-war American spirit.

Kaelan Kleber, Associate Director

Essays — Photography in Focus: Harry Callahan, May 20, 2020