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ART REVIEW : Impact of Harry Callahan’s Color Photography Has Faded With Time

Times Staff Writer

An artist’s essential beliefs needn’t change with the passage of time.

There is nothing inherently more aesthetic about color photography than black-and-white.

True statements, both. But subjects that, in vintage black-and-white prints, may suggest a meaningful and personal point of view, often seem disappointingly bland and banal in color. Sheer repetition also can render once-fresh ideas formulaic. And viewers don’t exist in a vacuum. The way people perceive art photographs inevitably has a lot to do with the crush of promotional imagery that leaps out everywhere in magazines, on billboards and on TV.

These problems haunt the recent color photographs of veteran photographer Harry Callahan, a generous selection of which is on view through Oct. 16 at the Laguna Art Museum’s South Coast Plaza satellite in Costa Mesa.

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Callahan, who turns 78 later this month, began photographing urban street scenes in black-and-white in the early 1940s. Although his wife Eleanor is the subject of his best-known work, one of Callahan’s longstanding themes is the essential loneliness of individuals caught up in the random patterns of pedestrian traffic.

Often focusing on women whose harsh, set faces somehow reflect both public masks and private vulnerabilities, Callahan also was intrigued by the staccato pace of urban life, which he registered in discreet double-exposures. In the ‘60s, he began juxtaposing video images with his lonely pedestrians, in strikingly contemporary effect.

Although he worked in color intermittently for decades when it was anathema to nearly all serious art photographers, Callahan didn’t return to it decisively until 1977, when he gave up black-and-white completely. By then other photographers had made a convincing case for the aesthetic merits of color, and he was able to afford to have dye-transfer prints (his preferred medium) produced by a professional lab to his specifications.

He could also afford to travel widely.

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So the street scenes in the exhibit variously include signs in Arabic lettering (in Egypt), stalls selling rugs (in Morocco), intricately decorated building facades (in Portugal) and yellow New York City taxicabs. His double exposure trick works equally in Hong Kong (rivers of cars and a dizzy cavalcade of signs advertising a raft of electronic products) and Atlanta (a woman carrying a briefcase elevated between old and new buildings on a quiet street).

This work is impeccable, crisp, colorful--and dead. Callahan seems to be on auto-pilot, spitting out pleasant pictures that tell us only what we already know.

A photograph he took in Atlanta in 1985 zooms in on the well-groomed, attractive face of a woman with a furrowed brow. Well, the viewer might think, maybe she is just squinting against the strong sunlight. We have grown so accustomed to looking closely at attractive faces that there is no shock of recognition here.

In 1950, when Callahan took a similar picture (in black-and-white) of a woman on a Chicago street, a close-up was a more striking thing. To be sure, there were romantic close-ups in movies. But the notion of isolating the face of an ordinary person out of a crowd retained a greater freshness than it has in our TV age.

Even more significantly, alienation and loneliness were pervasive topics of the era’s literature and philosophy. Callahan’s photographs have been read as indicative of the then-fashionable dilemma of the individual forced to make his or her way in a cold-shouldered world.

In fact, Callahan is a “cool” photographer whose eye has always retained a formalist aloofness. He is not in the business of making social statements. When his work has suggested a particular depth of meaning, that meaning has been colored by the attitudes of his era.

In the same way, it is tempting to see the superficiality and blandness of his recent photographs as simply mirroring the same qualities in ‘80s life.

After all, the exhibit catalogue essay reports that Callahan has often said he became interested in color because he saw it everywhere, “in magazines and on billboards and television.”

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And in the great majority of the images on view, he seems unable to subvert the superficial aspects of this “pervasive presence” to offer the viewer something beyond the trite notion of cities as fast-moving places with motley collections of people and foreign lands as places with attractively patterned walls and doorways.

In this context, it seems all too apropos that the exhibit comes from the collection of Hallmark Cards Inc., purveyors of cheery little messages to a mass audience. (Before Hallmark’s public relations people dispatch an aggrieved letter, however, it is only reasonable to add that the greeting card company has a decades-long history of collecting contemporary art and photography--the latter due to the friendship between Callahan and a company executive who was formerly a college art teacher and administrator.)

Happily, a few photographs in the show suggest Callahan still has some tricks up his sleeve.

The most interesting of these is called “Still Life.” On top of a landscape view, Callahan double-exposes an image of an open book. One page contains a photograph of an interior by Pierre Bonnard, “Dining Room on the Garden,” painted late in the career of the French artist known for his cozy, domestic views. The facing page is a text about the painting.

The interior melts gently into the landscape, fading out entirely just where the window view is located in the painting. The text is only partially readable. Each object in the painting--the words, the pages, the painting, the details of the landscape--acquires a striking equality, as if the photographer has magically broken down the walls between nature and art and the elaborate discourse that endeavors to compare one to the other.

“Just look,” this photograph seems to say. “Just look and make connections, and the world begins to make some sense after all.”

“Harry Callahan: New Color Photographs 1978-1987" remains on view through Oct. 16. The Laguna Art Museum’s South Coast Plaza satellite, 3333 Bristol St., Costa Mesa, is inside the mall’s Bristol Street entrance. Hours: from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Wednesday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is free. Information: (714) 662-3366.


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