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Photograph by Jonathan Williams

(1912 - 1999)


A letter from Russell Edson, the fabulist, invariably contains some sombre reminder: "There's always next year, until there's not. I don't think we would need to take our shoes off to count them."

So, now the obituary pages of The New York Times give us Harry Morey Callahan (1912-1999), photographer, born in Detroit. Gone. Damnation! "Gone into what/ like all them kings/ you read about," to quote a fragment of e.e. cummings' beautiful elegy for Sam Ward, the handyman at Silver Lake. Gone. And, Harry, me boyo, I wanted to tell you at least one more vintage Irish joke: "Why did the Irishman keep an empty bottle of milk in the fridge? In case anybody asked for black coffee." C'est sublime...

I was blessed with an extraordinary collection of mentors: Harry Callahan, Aaron Siskind, Frederick Sommer, Henry Holmes Smith, Clarence John Laughlin, Raymond Moore; Stefan Wolpe, Harry Partch, Lou Harrison; Kenneth Rexroth, Kenneth Patchen, Edward Dahlberg, Charles Olson, Paul Goodman, Robert Duncan, Geoffrey Grigson, Basil Bunting, and James Laughlin. Lou Harrison is the only one remaining among us-- active and vital at 82 in Aptos, California. You think about these things when you hit the Big-Seven-O. Just two weeks ago I scaled the stupdendous heights of Gehenna or Tophet, whichever it was, and walking over the bonehills, I entered the portals of Genuine Geezerhood. Basil Bunting asserted very firmly that poets over 70 should be summarily ground into cat's meat. So, I have less than 350 days to dance and sing, friends and neighbors. And, surely, some of these days will find me meditating on the intent figure of Harry Callahan, going about his camera work almost as in a trance. He taught by example, by pursuing the quest. Joel Oppenheimer insisted: "Be there when it happens; write it down!" Be there when it happens; click the shutter. Walker Evans, apparently, would say things like "If it's sunny, try f16; if it's not, try 5.6." And " Remember, you push the shutter, don't let the shutter push you." Very Irish. I think it's just possible that Harry was from Nepal. But more likely from the Auvergne. Stick a beret on him and he looks the part. (In the Massif Central the mountaineers call berets by the word for cowpat, which I never quite remember.) Yes, in one past-life Harry was a herder of sheep, milker of goats, known far and wide in the hills for his kindness, his beatitudes, and quiet songs.

I've pulled 12 Callahan books off the shelves and I've spent some two hours ruminating, looking at the images and reading some of the texts. I had never noticed before this perceptive writing by Keith Davis in Harry Callahan: New Color (Photographs 1978-1987), published by Hallmark Cards, Inc. "Proficiency in both golf and photography depends on sensitivity, balance, timing, and precision... Both require an inward focussing of attention, and the ability to simultaneously think and feel one's way through the process... In both disciplines successful "shots" are, to some degree, mysterious and unpredictable... And both activities are deceptively complex; they are easy to do, but exceedingly difficult to do well." Harry used to shoot in the 70's. Good for him! As for photography, he said he'd maybe shot 40,000 images and liked 800.

 Gertrude Stein said that when a Jew dies, he's dead. With Catholics, it's something else. Laudamus te, benedicimus te! Early on, Harry Callahan said: "A picture is like a prayer; you're offering a prayer to get something, and in a sense it's like a gift of God because you have practically no control-- at least I don't." In a photograph by Todd Webb (1945) Harry looks very monkish. His reticence all his life aims toward the Cistercians, and maybe even the Trappists. Who knows? How eloquent he was when he said things like: "I love art because it doesn't have rules like baseball. The only rule is to be good. That's the toughest thing to do." Do the job, keep quiet. It was Jean de LaFontaine who noted: "By the work one knows the workman."

 Harry also said that after he'd encountered Ansel Adams at a workshop in Detroit in 1941 he realized there were no mountains in Michigan, so he would have to look very hard at the ground under his feet. He loved walking. So, imagination makes me want to put him into a distant landscape with Matsuo Basho.

 It's 1689 and Basho, the greatest of Japanese haiku poets, is about to set forth from Edo (old Tokyo) on an 800 mile walk to the Sacred Mountains with Sora, his friend and disciple. Time for Harry Callahan to change his garments, stick a 35mm camera and a 4 x 5 view camera into his knapsack, master Japanese on the jet from Atlanta, bow to the Master, and call himself Sora. Let's listen to a few things they will say along The Narrow Road to the Deep North. I am using Cid Corman's translation of the text for the Basho. He comments: "We too move out with him to and through the backwater regions of Honshu. His words are our provision, breath, rhythm. And they can never be not of our time. The end of his journey is the end of ours. Everywhere he goes one feels a sounding made, the ground hallowed, hardwon, endeared to him, and so to us, through what others had made of it, had reached, discovered." The information about Haguro-san I glean from the sagacious Jonathan Greene.

Basho: "O glorious/ green leaves young leaves'/ sun light"
Harry: "Michigan, 1912/ my parents were farmers/ no art, but/ father liked music:/ Caruso records"
Basho: "fleas lice/ horse pishing/ by the pillow"
Harry: "I was going to be like Van Gogh/ never be recognized/ and do this great stuff"
Basho: "quiet/ into rock absorbing/ cicada sounds"
Harry: "I never knew what I was doing,/ so how come you think you know?"
Basho: "cruel!/ under the helmet/ cricket"
Harry: "some talk about/ Far-Eastern thought;/ I guess mine's/ Mid-Western"
Basho: "cool ah/ faint crescent's/ Haguro-san"
Harry: "when I went there, it was with my heart,/ and I felt that they came with their hearts"
We leave our poet and photographer on Haguro-san (along with Gassan and Yuduro-san), one of the "Three Mountains of Dewa." sacred to mountain ascetics known as Yamabushi. Past a famous five-story pagoda there are 2,446 stone steps up the mountain through very old straight & tall cedar trees. I hope to see you both there one day.

Jonathan Williams
Skywinding Farm, Scaly Mountain, North Carolina
April 1, 1999