Harry Callahan's Mentee on The Photographer's Influences, Impact, and Lasting Legacy
Ben Larrabee reflects on his mentor Harry Callahan, the first photographer to capture abstractions of nature.
By Lainey Sidell
October 01, 2018
In celebration of Pace Gallery’s current exhibitions, Surface spoke with the mentees of photography masters whose works are on view. “Harry Callahan: Sticks and Stones” is on view at Pace/MacGill through Oct. 20.
Harry Callahan was a hobbyist photographer turned professional artist who left a lasting mark on the discipline thanks to his commitment to ingenuity and further expanding the boundaries of those who came before him—all in hopes of developing a style that was truly original to him.
And Callahan did just that. Widely considered by art historians to be the first photographer to capture and record abstractions of nature, his deep-seated passion for photographic excellence eventually led him to pedagogy. Callahan first taught at Chicago’s Institute of Design before moving to Providence, Rhode Island, to develop and chair Rhode Island School of Design’s (RISD) inaugural photography program in 1961.
In 1962, Ben Larrabee matriculated at RISD as a graphic design major. A photography class was required as part of Larrabee’s curriculum; it was then that he was introduced to Callahan and, subsequently, the “magical” world of photography. Callahan would eventually mentor Larrabee, which led to a lifelong symbiotic relationship between the two. Surface spoke with Larrabee about Callahan’s life, legacy, and lasting influence.
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What were some of your earliest memories of Callahan?
The thing about Callahan was that he was kind of a similar soul, or he had a way of thinking and a way of working that I responded to, that was synched in with how I felt about things. I changed my major and I spent a fifth year, like senior year and a fifth year, studying photography [at RISD]. The thing I loved about Callahan was, he would say, you know, “Don’t be so concerned about what other people are doing. Do the work and let the work lead you. Shoot and look at what you’ve done, and then shoot some more, and look at what you’ve done and shoot some more, and learn that way. Let the work take you in a direction.”
I know that Callahan was very much inspired by Ansel Adams’s work, particularly with regard to employing large-format cameras. Would you say your work is informed by both of them? No. I for a long time didn’t like Ansel Adams’s work. I thought it was too … I don’t know if pedantic is the right word, but he’s so obsessed over the technical, and spending hours and days dodging and burning. I guess he referred to it as creating a symphony. He had a musical background as well, so he thought that way. I had no idea Callahan had been influenced by Ansel Adams, except later on that he had taken a course at the Camera Club in Chicago and Ansel Adams was there, and that he had been inspired by a photograph Ansel Adams had taken of … I don’t know if you call them weeds exactly, but just nondescript grasses along a trail, side of a trail, how that’s legitimate stuff to photograph as well. Callahan said it kind of set him free to photograph anything.
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Do you own any works of Callahan’s?
Yes. A few years after I was out of school, it might’ve been, I don’t know, five or 10 years after I was out of school, Harry asked me if I would design a wedding invitation for his daughter. And he had a photograph he’d like me to use. It was a water fountain in Chicago in the park by the lake, a place I used to go. It was all snow, so it was all white, snowy, and this water fountain. I designed it so all the type, the invitation, all the specifics, the address, everything, was this tiny type on one line across the bottom. He was really great. He looked at that and he said, “Do you think you can make it any smaller?” He got into it. So instead of paying me anything, I asked for some prints. He gave me two prints.
What would you say his legacy is? To photograph in a way that is personal and expansive of where you are, and to show intimate moments, and to allow the work to lead you, and to experiment. Although the thing about Harry was that he used experimentation as a way of developing his vision, and not so much as an end in itself.
What’s the fondest memory you have of Callahan? I think it was in my senior year, winter there was a camera club. It was the first year there was a camera club, and we decided we were going to go out to Block Island, and Harry was going to come with us. There were about eight of us or ten of us, and we went out on a little boat out to Block Island with Harry and spent the weekend. That night we all ended up, or most of us ended up in Harry’s room, and we sat around and basically listened to Harry talk. He was, like, the most perceptive, profound philosopher person I had ever heard speak. I started writing, making notes, and I’d write down things he said. I didn’t have any paper, so I started writing on the palm of my hand and writing on the back of my hand, just to remember the things he had said. I’m going to read a few of these things to you and comment on them.
Oh, fantastic. One thing he said is, have the curiosity to be moved, to move others with what you feel. That meant so much to me because … When you’re looking at something, if you’re open to it and you can be moved by it and you can photograph that and communicate it so that other people can see that, that’s a real accomplishment. That’s a very satisfying, fulfilling experience.
Then I’m turning the page, “how to do your own thing,” and the idea of just finding your own way, and not looking for shortcuts or not looking to see how other people are doing it. But then if you’re finding it your own way, then it’s yours.
Next, how to get through all the advisors and the bullshit artists, and just stick with what you feel and what you know, and don’t be thrown off by people telling you how you ought to do it or you should try this or you should try that.
He said, “No one can teach you anything. The schools are phony. It’s a living process. You have to live it out.” Then he said, “Learn to work with the system.” Well, it’s true. If you want people to see your work, you need to work with the system, otherwise you get isolated.
That was an inspiration to me. It kind of summed up his way of thinking and his attitude. It just left a lot of room for me, and I felt supported by that. As a student of his, the thing that really meant so much to me was feeling that my own way of seeing was valid.