Black, White & Abstract: Callahan, Siskind, White at the Baltimore Museum of Art

Aaron Siskind, Jerome, Arizona 21, 1945. ©Estate of Aaron Siskind, courtesy Baltimore Museum of Art

Curated by Rena Hoisington at the Baltimore Museum of Art, this modest yet illuminating survey of photographs by Harry Callahan, Aaron Siskind, and Minor White is a potent reminder of how fundamental these figures are to mid-20th-century American photography.  All three came to photography on their own paths in the 1930s and over the ensuing decades helped to shape photographic aesthetics and education in profound ways. Callahan and Siskind were friends and colleagues; both were hired by László Moholy-Nagy to teach at the Institute of Design in Chicago and were colleagues again at the Rhode Island School of Design. Ansel Adams invited White to join the faculty at the California College of Art (now the San Francisco Art Institute). Later, White taught at the Rochester Institute of Technology, became a curator at the Eastman House, co-founded the journal Aperture, and completed his teaching career at MIT.

As pivotal figures in the history of the medium, who are varied in sensibility, Callahan, Siskind, and White were united in the pursuit of photography as a form of self-expression, fulfilling Moholy-Nagy’s directive to explore “the expressive manipulation of light… free from cultural indoctrination.” For many years in Chicago, Callahan began his day by wandering and photographing his beloved city. Afternoons were devoted to developing and printing. Callahan experimented widely with multiple exposures, creating complex arrangements of windows or the delicate tracings of leafless trees bending in the wind on the shore of Lake Michigan. His photographs of his wife, Eleanor, are humble yet loving icons of devotion.

Harry Callahan, Eleanor, 1947. ©Estate of Harry Callahan, courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery

Siskind initially trained with the Photo League and followed its social humanist agenda, but by the 1940s, he was attempting to expand the descriptive power of photography beyond the denotative. His close descriptions of peeling paint and corroding metal aligned his work with Abstract Expressionism. Equally metaphoric is his 1950s series Pleasures and Terrors of Levitation, which portrays the bodies of young men arcing through the air as they dive into Lake Michigan. These dynamic photographs recall Rodchenko’s Constructivist-inspired images of athletes, yet Siskind’s are less ideological and more emblematic of the personal subjectivity this generation of American photographers was seeking.

Although often surrounded by students and acolytes, by most accounts White was a bit of a loner. His search for photographic meaning was spiritual and metaphysical, leading him through a wide variety of religious practices from mystical Catholicism to Zen Buddhism. Inspired by Steiglitz’s concept of photographic equivalents, White’s series The Sound of One Hand Clapping is a sequence of shifting textures, light, and shadows.  He used the phrase “cinema of stills” to describe his approach to photographic sequencing, and one can observe a nuanced transformation of forms from image to image as White sought to suggest the immanent.

Despite their enormous influence on American photography in the 20th century, the work of Callahan, Siskind, and White tends to be eclipsed in the narrative of photographic history that canonizes the f64 group, Steiglitz, and Evans before jumping ahead to post-war figures such as Robert Frank and Diane Arbus. This exhibition shows us that vigorous experimentation and conceptual rigor were at the heart of their important contributions.