Review: Harry Callahan: American Photographer

Harry Callahan, Eleanor, Port Huron, 1954

Harry Callahan: American Photographer at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (November 21,2009 – July 3, 2010) features recently acquired black-and-white and color photographs that survey major aspects of Callahan’s remarkable photographic career. Largely a self taught artist, Callahan’s career spanned six decades, including teaching positions at the Chicago Institute of Design, the American manifestation of the German school Bauhaus which promoted the experimentation in all the arts as well as a position at the Rhode Island School of Design where he taught until the mid 1970’s.

At the Chicago Institute of Design, Callahan was invited to teach photography by Lazslo Moholy-Nagy, one of my favorite artists to have come out of the Bauhaus and also an influential photographer in America. Primarily drawn to urban subjects, Callahan said in 1991, “I think I’ve photographed the same things all my life, buildings and grasses and people walking.” His photographic works become extremely personal and intimate for many reasons, in part due to his wife Eleanor, his muse for more than 15 years.

Harry Callahan (American, 1912-1999), Eleanor, about 1947, Photograph, gelatin silver print, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Gift of Barbara and Gene Polk, © The Estate of Harry Callahan, courtesy Pace/MacGill, NY, Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Callahan also once said that if one chooses one’s subject selectively, the camera intuitively writes the poetry. Eleanor Knapp, as the subject for some of his most iconic works was arguably that poetry not written, but emphasized intuitively by the camera. One of the most striking images in the exhibition and one of Callahan’s most famous works is Eleanor, Port Huron, 1954 which juxtaposes the soft, sensuous curves of the human body with the lush, hard and almost raspy edges of the landscape that envelopes Eleanor’s body. Callahan’s ability to intensify his subjects by placing them in the vastness of the geographical landscape is emphasized in most of his images depicting Eleanor.

In spite of Callahan’s expansive career, the exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts is small and somewhat uninspiring. Over the past few years, several museums have organized exhibitions of Callahan’s works, but an entire retrospective of his influential career has yet to surface. Many works in the exhibition have the power to remind us as spectators of how small we are in context to our surroundings.

Making a case for the ähts

As a student in the Boston Public School system, I felt deprived and envious of the things children in suburban schools enjoyed, especially in terms of the numerous fine arts classes.  As a student of Art History at Boston University and a professional working in the field of Historic Preservation, the career choices I have made speak to the detrimental effect the lack of exposure to the arts growing up have had on my life. My passion for breaking the boundaries and nurturing a dialog of multiculturalism in the arts and preservation has shaped me into a strong advocate for our cultural heritage.

As a personal and professional goal, I hope to aid in erasing the lines of demarcation that we has humans impose upon ourselves (and upon others). Whether physical, imaginary, social or even psychological, that theoretical red line suffocates the creative genius in all of us. Why must we restraint ourselves to doing only one thing, reaching out to a particular group of people, or working in a particular community and in the process excluding others? The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), founded in 1965 with the mission of bringing arts to all Americans has been pushing the boundaries that persist in the arts and culture.  

Not every citizen in America has access to the visual and performance arts and those that do most often possess a higher education and are politically savvy enough to make decisions that affect the needs of everyone in their community. Unfortunately, not everyone is this privileged and the lack of support for the NEA have also exposed its failures, in that marginalized people who live in the periphery of major urban centers or in cities where funding for the arts is lacking, have become battlegrounds for both critics  and supporters of the NEA. Because “a great country deserves great art,” I firmly believe that the NEA should not only remain an active organization, but its budget should not be cut. Many of the programs supported by the NEA are geared towards the education of every American citizen. These programs promote and foster a cultural exchange and understanding much needed in our society today and also inject millions of dollars into the local, state and national economies.

Artist for Humanity Building - South Boston

Fostering creativity in learning is at the top of the NEA’s mission. As a result of their initiatives in education, more and more children are being exposed to the arts in their schools and communities. At risk youth are nurtured in after school programs that promote confidence and self sufficiency through the arts. A local example of an organization supported by the NEA is the highly successful Artists for Humanity in South Boston, whose mission is to bridge the economic, racial and social divisions by providing underserved youth with the keys to self sufficiency through paid employment in the arts.

According to Safe and Smart: Making the After-School Hours Work for Kids, a research conducted by the U.S Department of Education shows that children who participate in after-school programs generally attain higher academic achievement, behave better in class, handle conflict more effectively and cooperate more with authority figures and with their peers than their counterparts who are not in after-school programs. The National Endowment for the Arts grants awards to state, federal and local non-profits who are making a difference in the life of many children through after school and summer programs in the arts.

In these historic times in our country, the role of the NEA matters today more than ever. The election of Barack Obama, the nation’s first African American president has shed light on many issues of cultural identity, race and multiculturalism in the arts and in our society. A newly re-invigorated dialog on these issues has surfaced and I believe the NEA will be at the center of it in the following years.  In“A Ministry of Culture? Not in America,” published on February 23, 1995, Boston Globe journalist Jeff Jacoby calls for the abolition of the National Endowment for the Arts while ignoring the multicultural fabric of America. Jacoby argues that “the NEA isn’t the mainstay of art in America, the arts have flourished in America for 219 years, the NEA has existed for 30. Copley’s painting, Ive’s scores, Whitman’s poems, O’Neill’s plays, Melville’s novels, Saint Gaudens’ sculptures, Stieglitz photographs- the vast outpouring of art in the United States pre 1965 renders preposterous the notion that art would starve and shrivel without the NEA.”

Shaw Memorial, Boston Common - Augustus Saint Gaudens - Frame by Stanford White

What the author fails to mention is that photographer and champion of Modern Art Alfred Stieglitz grew up in a well to do family whose parents encouraged his artistic pursuits by giving him a monetary allowance, eliminating the need to earn a living by means other than photography. Jacoby also fails to mention that John Singleton Copley went on the Grand Tour, a pivotal moment in the life of some of the wealthiest citizens in our country or that Augustus Saint Gaudens was the son of a successful business owner who sent their son to study sculpture at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, one of the world’s most prestigious institutions of architecture and the fine arts.  The most penetrating fact that Jacoby fails to mention when calling for the abolition of the NEA is that the artists he praises as having made it on their own without the help of organizations like the NEA are all White, Anglo-Saxon males. This commentary is problematic because it fails in many ways to acknowledge the ever important multicultural point of view in the art world.

In times of economic difficulties, those who are affected the most tend to be the economically disadvantage people in our society. Can we really afford to further denigrate our society, our values, and our cultural heritage more than we have already done so by abolishing an organization that has broken and has yet to break many boundaries in exchanging dialogues rich in multiculturalism? I beg to differ.

Difficult economic times call for drastic measures and our cultural heritage is the first one to suffer. Recently, President Obama unveiled this year’s fiscal budget and in a surprising blow to those in the field of historic preservation and the arts, the Save America’s Treasures, the nation’s only bricks-and-mortar grant program has been proposed for elimination. The National Endowment for the Arts is in itself the best economic stimulus package there is. According to a recent study released by the National Governors Association titled Arts & the Economy: Using Arts and Culture to Stimulate State Economic Development states, the arts and culture-related industries, provide direct economic benefits to states and communities by creating jobs, attracting investments, generating tax revenues, further stimulating local economies through tourism and consumer purchases.

To further argue for the retention of the NEA, according to research by Americans for the Arts, nonprofit arts organizations and their audiences generate $166.2 billion in economic activity every year, support 5.7 million jobs, and return nearly $30 billion in government revenue every year. Every $1 billion in spending by nonprofit arts and culture organizations and their audiences results in almost 70,000 full time jobs. Without the NEA, many of these small nonprofit arts organizations would be unable to stimulate the economy and create jobs. Much debate is currently going on about the future of the NEA. Its budget is $160 million a year, this means that the government spends an outstanding .51 cents per capita (I hope you can sense my sarcasm here)!

Priority for the arts in America? What priority?