Eleanor Callahan, wife of Harry Callahan has died at 95. She was the subject of one of the most significant portrait series in photography, which is perfect because Eleanor was anonymous to most people. There are probably more great portraits of Eleanor Callahan than of Marilyn Monroe.
The Callahan marriage was not the type of artist-muse relationship that they make movies about. It seems she made no effort to be a compelling model. She is never trying to create persona or convey personality, yet she is always present. So many famous portraits that result from the male-female artist-muse relationship are portraits of a dancing bear. In the Eleanor portraits a woman doesn’t need to be poked and prodded, twisted and overacting to be fascinating.
The MOMA’s web site has a fairly good selection of the photographs. The recent Steidl book on the series is wonderful. What’s incredible is how many genres there are in the series. Completely natural (in bed, naked with child), stark minimalist line drawings, a day out on the town, abstract expressionist deconstruction of the human form, bucolic summer poems, even some that feel like the New Topographics.
above: Harry Callahan, Eleanor, Chicago, 1949