Thursday, February 11, 2010

Harry Callahan show and small prints

Last night, I went for the second time to see the Harry Callahan show at the Museum of Fine Arts. I find it interesting that it is paired with an exhibition of Albrecht Durer, who I love- but this post will focus more on Callahan.

The first time I went to see the show, I didn't have a lot of time to spend with it, and the gallery was very crowded. This time, on a snowy Wednesday night, the gallery was mostly empty and I had all the time in the world to look at the images.

Many things struck me about the show. For a relatively small exhibition, the range of work was vast. I wasn't aware of Callahan's commitment to experimentation, and was fascinated to see the many different techniques he used over the course of his career. I was most familiar with his works of his wife, Eleanor, but was delighted to see the prints in person and up close. His printing style was very subjective- sometimes very dark, sometimes very light- but not necessarily "correct." One of my favorite images from the show is an 8 x 10 print that is almost entirely black, with a very tiny nude Eleanor the only thing visible in the light. It seems like such a radical, and simultaneously elegant, way to make an image.

His use of color, experimentation with darkroom techniques, including writing with light and making multiple exposure prints, and exploration of presentation styles all struck me as incredibly adventurous. I am somewhat ashamed to say I have never looked that closely at Callahan's work, and hadn't realized the full extent of his curiosity and willingness to explore.

But, all of this is to lead me to what struck me the most, something I was aware of before seeing the show but that hit me hard when I was actually in its presence: the prints are small. And absolutely stunning, packed with a mighty punch. As someone who went through photography school relatively recently, I have had it ingrained into me that photographs are big. More often than not, photographs are presented in galleries and museums at a size that was absolutely unheard of in the last generation. At times, I feel that the size adds to the piece, but quite often, I feel that it is completely unnecessary, and sometimes detracts from it.

During my time working at the Harvard Art Museum, I was lucky enough to handle a significant percentage of the collection on a very personal level. I saw images in their original form that I had previously seen only as slide projections on a massive wall or reproduced in a book. Among the images that struck me the most was Callahan's small, lightly printed image of Eleanor with her arms above her head. I had a vision of this image as a monumental icon of American photography and assumed it was large, when in fact it was a very small print of only a few inches. I had similar experiences with the work of Robert Frank, Bruce Davidson, Diane Arbus, etc. To see these works in person, and to be able to view up close the printing technique, the borders, the size, and the occasional dent or fixer smudge made them feel much more authentic and alive.

All of these thoughts beg the question: is bigger always better? Though I am a large-format photographer, my prints are 16" x 20" at their largest, and I am debating shooting 8" x 10" film sometime in the future out of a desire to exhibit contact prints. Not every image begs to be large, or even benefits from it- sometimes, a small, intimate photograph is the perfect physicality for the emotion the image is hoping to convey.

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