Harry CallahanEleanor (1948)

There are only a handful of photographers in the history of the medium with as roundly as exquisite a body of work over their lifetime. Callahan is absolutely one such photographer.

(In fact: if I was asked to name one photographer who one might through an especially thorough study of their work, glean the most extensive picture of photography as an art form, I’d probably insist that Callahan was the only consideration.)

My favorites are the photos he made with Eleanor and subsequently Eleanor and his daughter. But even with his minimalist landscapes and plants in the landscape–he is always magnificently attuned to nuance of light, tone and dimensionality.

I love everything about this photo. (I’ve somehow never seen it before encountering it here.) But what’s particularly revelatory about it is that silhouettes usual appear completely flat–as if someone cut out a shape in heavy cardboard and placed them between the camera and the light. (If you’re thinking of the scene in Home Alone with the cardboard Micheal Jordan cut-out… good call.)

The reason for that you’re dealing with something that is brightly backlit–thus, the object is blocking the light. The point at which the object blocking the light is the widest only has one dimension and there’s light that is blocked and light that is not blocked on either side of that object.

When I teach three point lighting to undergrads, we talk about the key light, the fill light and the back (or rim) light. The reason it has become customary to use this setup is because it a standardized approach to the stylized representation of natural lighting.

If you’re standing in the middle of a field on a sunny day–unless you’re facing into the sun (which doesn’t make for the most aesthetically appealing imagery–the sun is going to be bright on one side of you than the other. This is because the sun hits one side of you and by hitting that one side of you, it’s blocked from hitting the other side of you. (Unless you’re a ghost and then my apologies.)

The ground around you actually reflects light to a certain degree. So while one side of your face is brighter than the other, the ground helps fill it in so it’s still slightly darker but naturally and flatteringly so. (The key light is usually to left and the fill light to the right of the scene–you can do it however but as the convention is borrowed from Dutch Baroque painting, where the light almost categorically falls left to right.)

It’s the light behind you that actually gives you dimensionality. (A key light and a fill light will make the objects illuminated appear flat in exactly the same way a silhouette makes the subject presented in silhouette appear two dimensional.)

Notice how just the faintest of fills on the fingers of Eleanor’s right hand on her left arm–I’m reasonably certain that she’s is standing with her back to the camera–have dimensionality; and therefore create this strange since that she is and is not actually flat.

Harry CallahanEleanor and Barbara (1954)


Muses throughout his career, Callahan’s wife and daughter played, posed, and aged before his lens. With their attention to the physicality of light, however, Callahan’s photographs transcend mere family portraiture by calling attention to the simple beauty of life’s fleeting moments. “He just liked to take the pictures of me,” Eleanor recalled in her nineties. “In every pose. Rain or shine. And whatever I was doing. If I was doing the dishes or if I was half asleep. And he knew that I never, never said no. I was always there for him. Because I knew that Harry would only do the right thing.”
Eleanor Callahan died in February 2012 at the age of ninety-five.