May 25, 2018
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Husband-photographer’s muse, Eleanor Callahan inspired photo poetry

By Matt Schudel, The Washington Post

Eleanor Callahan, whose dark-eyed gaze and generous curves became familiar through the remarkable photographs of her husband, Harry Callahan, died Feb. 28 at a hospice in Atlanta. She was 95 and, according to various news reports, had complications from cancer.

Callahan was often called the muse to her husband, who is recognized as one of the foremost art photographers of the 20th century. For years, before his reputation became established, she supported him through her work as an executive secretary.

She also became her husband’s favorite subject, whether clothed or in the nude, in hundreds of photographs over the years. Some showed her from a distance, standing beside buildings, occupying a vacant room or emerging from water. Others captured her “down to the very last details of anatomy,” Washington Post critic Philip Kennicott wrote in October 2011, when a centennial exhibition o f Harry Callahan’s photography opened at the National Gallery of Art.

The collaboration between husband and wife is considered by art historians to be reminiscent of the paintings of Edward Hopper, Alfred Stieglitz’s revealing portraits of this then-wife artist Georgia O’Keeffe, or Edward Weston’s images of his wife Charis Wilson.

“Eleanor was no pinup,” critic Paul Richard wrote in The Post in 1996. “Her body was a little thick, her dark-browed face a little plain, and her lure in these photographs is never carnal. But the beauty of her being, and of the deep familiar love that her husband holds for her, is felt throughout his show.”

Callahan was a self-taught photographer who experimented with technique, including multiple exposures, intentionally blurred images, black-and-white and color. At any moment, even if she were cooking or cleaning, she might be summoned to pose.

“Heavens to Betsy, I was used to it,” she told The Post in 1996. “He’d photograph me while I was sleeping. Or he’d just sneak up on me. I never protested. Photography was as much a part of our lives as getting up in the morning.”

Eleanor Annetta Knapp was born June 13, 1916, in Royal Oak, Mich. After high school, she became a secretary at Chrysler, where she met Callahan in 1933. They were married in 1936.

He bought his first camera in 1938 and, inspired by Stieglitz and Ansel Adams, taught himself the mechanics of the medium. He taught in Chicago and, beginning in 1961, at the Rhode Island School of Design, but before he became established Eleanor Callahan supported her husband through her secretarial work.

After their daughter was born in 1950, Callahan often depicted mother and child together. In 1983, the Callahans moved to Atlanta, where Harry Callahan died in 1999 at 86.

Survivors include their daughter, Barbara Callahan Hollinger of Atlanta; and two granddaughters.

In 1984, Harry Callahan published “Eleanor,” a book with 64 photographs of his wife taken through the decades. Last fall, she visited the National Gallery for the opening of her husband’s retrospective, which was on display through March 4. She and her daughter also donated 45 photographs to the National Gallery, giving it one of the country’s largest Callahan collections.

Reviewing the recent exhibition at the National Gallery, Kennicott called Callahan “one of the most driven, disciplined and innovative photographers working anywhere in the world.”

Although Callahan photographed many other subjects, including landscapes and city scenes, he achieved a rare state of intimacy when his wife was on the other side of his lens.

“If you choose your subject selectively — intuitively,” he once said, “the camera can write poetry.”

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