Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York, New York
Purchased by Akron Art Museum, 1991
2017: "Family" 2/25/17 - 8/20/17, Bidwell Gallery, Akron Art Museum.
2007: "Prized Images: The Knight Purchase Award for Photographic Media 1991 - 2006" 7/17/07 - 10/14/07, Akron Art Museum.
1997 - 1998: "75th Anniversary Celebration of the Collection" 1/15/97 - 1/11/98, Akron Art Museum.
1996: "Akron's Own Rings: Five Passions in World Art" 6/22/96 - 8/11/96, Akron Art Museum.
1991 - 1992: "Focus on the Collection: A 70th Anniversary Celebration" 11/3/91 - 1/5/92, Akron Art Museum.
contact print on 8 x 5 in., sheet
Eleanor, around 1947 (printed later)
Collection of the Akron Art Museum
"It wasn't enough just to photograph a nude," explained Harry Callahan. "I hired a model once and it didn't work. I wanted to photograph the person for whom I had feeling."1 That person was Eleanor Knapp, whom he met on a blind date in 1933 and married three years later. In the mid-1940s Callahan began regularly photographing his wife—clothed and nude. Being photographed by her husband "was part of our daily lives for 25 years," recalled Eleanor. "He took pictures wherever we happened to be."2 These sessions, often occurring in the most mundane of domestic surroundings, resulted in the creation of some of Callahan's best-known images from a career spanning over half a century.
Callahan was working as a clerk for the Chrysler Motor Parts Corporation when he took up photography as a hobby in 1938. A 1941 workshop conducted by Ansel Adams gave Callahan his first glimpse of the medium's full expressive possibilities and inspired him to begin a serious study of photography. Four years later he quit Chrysler and, the following year, was hired to teach at Chicago's Institute of Design. He went on to become one of the most influential photographers and teachers of the late twentieth century, winning numerous honors for both activities. Among the prizes for his work was the first Knight Purchase Award, presented annually since 1991 by the Akron Art Museum to a key figure on the international art scene working with photographic media.
A major source of this renown has been Callahan's ability to combine emotion and metaphorical content with formal exploration. None of his series shows that trait better than his photographs of Eleanor. Callahan used his wife to represent woman in all her roles—but especially as beloved, mother, and symbol of nature. The first of those three roles is seen in Eleanor, one of thirty-four works by the artist in the museum's collection. While the image is sensual and adoring, it does not idealize or glamorize. Eleanor wears no makeup or clothes in this close-up view; the natural folds and wrinkles of her body are emphasized rather than hidden. The directness and openness of her gaze and pose reveal that Callahan's love is returned. The deep affection, intimacy, and trust so evident in this photograph are the fruit of eleven years of married life.
Eleanor's body and her stare press forward not just toward the photographer/viewer but also against the flatness of the paper. This visual pressure reflects the physical process of producing this artwork, a contact print in which photosensitized paper is pressed against the negative, then exposed to a light source. Other clues remind the viewer that this, and all photographs, are but the miraculous illusion of three-dimensional reality on a flat surface. Callahan left visible the film identification lettering and the edges of the film, which form a black border around the entire image and echo the way Eleanor's arms surround her face. He also heightened the contrast in large areas of skin just enough to subtly flatten out Eleanor's limbs, emphasizing the strong abstract composition that underlies their positioning.
These references to composing, shooting, and processing a photograph complete the work, unifying its form and content while also joining the artist to his lover. Callahan's presence, and his response to Eleanor's gaze, are indelibly marked on the print in these signs of his art.
- Barbara Tannenbaum, 2001
1. Quoted in Valerie Brooks, "Harry Callahan's True Colors,” ARTnews 82 (October 1983): 69.
Callahan, Harry. Eleanor. New York and Carmel, Calif.: Callaway Editions and Friends of Photography, 1984.
Greenough, Sarah. Harry Callahan. Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1996.