Photographer. Accommodating a broad range of subjects and featuring elegant graphic formalism, his work drew on purist American modernism, as well as European experimentalism. Most of his photographs picture the commonplace circumstances of his own life: the cities where he lived (especially Chicago), the nearby country and shore, and the people closest to him, his wife and daughter. Believing that photographing is an act of inner discovery, he created accessible, unforced, and unpretentious images. An exacting craftsman in exploring expressive possibilities of his medium, he sometimes used multiple exposures, but most of his work is direct, sharply focused, and disarmingly unfussy. In many prints, he made particularly effective use of high contrast, relying on sharp black and white with few gray tones. Although diffident about theory, aesthetics, and interpretive criticism, he nevertheless counted among the most important photography teachers of the postwar period. Harry Morey Callahan studied engineering for two years at Michigan State University in East Lansing. Two years after he left in 1936 to work at varied jobs in the Detroit area, he took up photography as a hobby. Through fellow Detroit native Arthur Siegel (1913–78), who had studied with László Moholy-Nagy in Chicago, he discovered photographic modernism. A workshop in 1941 with Ansel Adams redirected Callahan's life. Excited by Adams's technique, his demonstration that a good photograph can picture mundane subject matter, and his exalted view of photography's mission, Callahan experienced a burst of creativity. During the next two or three years, nearly all the themes of his later career appeared. In 1946 he moved to Chicago to teach at Moholy-Nagy's Institute of Design. He became head of its photography department three years later and stayed until 1961. From then until 1973 he served as chairman of the photography department at the Rhode Island School of Design. He retired from teaching in 1977 but continued to live in Providence for a decade before moving permanently to Atlanta.
Callahan pursued an experimental aesthetic but also stressed the role of the artist's subjectivity. For about twenty-five years, his wife, Eleanor, appears nude and clothed, in intimate close-up and as a speck on the horizon, as the subject of near abstractions and in portrait studies. In Chicago, Callahan frequently photographed on the street, recording the movement of people and the stillness of building facades. Many of his most effective multiple exposures amplify the headlong pace of modern city life. The shore also fascinated him. In Chicago he recorded urbanites enjoying Lake Michigan, and during his Providence years he captured the rolling Atlantic, the damp weather, the dunes, and beach life. In retirement, Callahan traveled abroad more frequently than previously, always with camera in hand. Although he used black-and-white film most of the time, he also employed color intermittently throughout his career. However, he did not exhibit this work until the late 1970s, when for several years he worked almost exclusively in color. In 1978, he became the first photographer to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale. Collections of his photographs include The Multiple Image (1961), Photographs: Harry Callahan (1964), Callahan (1976), Harry Callahan: Color (1980), Water's Edge (1980), and Eleanor (1984).