If you want to see the beauty of a boarded-up building or the austere grace of a windowframe, Harry Callahan’s your man. A master of multiple exposure (many of the photographs here are layered with ghost images), Callahan was also capable of disconcerting concentration on objects that most people wouldn’t bother to call subjects – a lamppost, a flagpole, a Florentine alleyway. His work revolves around his wife, Eleanor. She’s everywhere: loose black hair tumbling into water or face tight-framed by clasped arms; in silhouette or revealed, naked, except that her curves match a crescent of light against her shoulder, the wall seems to slant in a complicated echo of her hip, and before you know it you’re being ravished by a beauty only tangentially related to the female form.
Callahan, born in 1912 in Detroit (he died in 1999), experienced his own double exposure: to cars, those avant-garde machines carrying us into a formless future (he worked at Chrysler) and to the sharp simplicity of Ansel Adams’s eternal landscapes. In Callahan’s work, we can almost touch the tension between the urban and the manufactured, the epic and the intimate – between a skyscraper’s rhyming verticals, say, and swirls of grasses seemingly etched on Eleanor’s strong face. Given Callahan’s gifted peculiarity, Tate’s thematic arrangement seems unnecessary. Consider three pictures of Aix-en-Provence: one’s of a broom cupboard, another of a silvery plant against a black background. The third is of grass and a bush: Eleanor’s, that is, superimposed on a meadow. As this superb show makes clear, the world is unlikely and various, and Callahan’s a tourist impossible to trap.