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By William StageSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / December 10, 1984

During a career spanning more than four decades, Harry Callahan has explored so many avenues of photography that his work is not easily labeled. Critics and reviewers, however, are fond of referring to his style as ''formalistic,'' emphasizing arrangements of shape and color at the expense, sometimes, of subject matter.

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Callahan was born in Detroit in 1912, the son of farming parents. In 1938, he took up photography as a pastime and soon joined amateur camera clubs around Detroit. In 1941, he saw Ansel Adams's photographs for the first time, and shortly after decided to make photography his life's work.

Once he had made up his mind, Callahan became totally engaged in his chosen medium and a spate of new ideas - ways of seeing - came upon him. ''All my ideas happened in two years,'' he once said, ''I just keep going back.''

From 1946 to 1961, he taught photography at the Institute of Design (formerly the New Bauhaus) in Chicago, where he met architect Mies van der Rohe, painter Hugo Weber, and photographers Aaron Siskind and Edward Steichen, all of whom influenced his work. Then, from 1961 to 1977, Callahan headed the Photography Program at the Rhode Island School of Design.

Although he has taught photography for more than 35 years, Callahan's approach to his work is decidedly nonacademic.

''I wish more people felt that photography was an adventure the same as life itself,'' he has said, ''and felt that their individual feelings were worth expressing. To me that makes photography more exciting.''

The following interview took place in Atlanta, where Callahan and his wife, Eleanor, were visiting their daughter:

Do you recall the day you said to yourself, ''I'm going to become a photographer?''

There was no great revelation. A friend had bought a movie camera, and it looked so beautiful to me I thought I'd like to have one. So I went to buy one and then I found out how much it cost, and even in those amateur days it was a fortune. So the guy sold me a Rolleicord and I started having fun with that; started going to camera clubs, learning how to develop and print film. In those days we were just amateurs, shutterbugs - still, there was a lot of excitement.

This was in Detroit?

Yes, about 1938. I liked it more and more. What happened was Ansel Adams came through and he had an exhibit of his pictures. They were small prints - some closeups of the ground - and they were very precious and of beautiful quality. I don't like his later big prints - too big and overdramatic - but those hit me just right. They were (of) such wonderful quality. The effect was that it completely freed me. I thought: So this is photography? I realized I didn't need to go to the mountains to make a great photograph. I could take a picture anywhere.

I've photographed many different subjects, and the reason for that is after Ansel Adams was here I'd reached a point where I liked photography so much I just wanted to photograph almost all the time, every spare moment. So if I would use an 8-by-10 camera, I'd get tired of photographing that way, studying everything upside down. So I'd try a 35mm and I'd struggle with that until I got tired of it, then go on to something else; change subject matter, too, because I didn't want to photograph the same way forever.

What characterizes your style?

You get known for a lot of funny things . . . the last thing I've been called was a formalist. I'm interested in subject. I'm interested in ways of photo-graphing. I'm interested in finding out, by photo-graphing, what I am. And ''Water's Edge,'' (a collection of photographs published in 1980, focusing on the meeting of water and land) was one example. Those landscapes are nothing like Ansel Adams's - big mountaintops and that kind of stuff - mostly, they're simple line things.

OK. Which artists do you think have had the greatest influence on your work?

Well, I think even though Ansel Adams had an enormous, freeing effect on me, I never felt that I wanted to photograph like him. I think the fact that he was very close - in his dreams - to Stieglitz, that ''preciousness'' had an effect on me.

Adams was close to Stieglitz?

Stieglitz gave Ansel a show in New York (in 1936) and from then on Ansel was in heaven. He considered Stieglitz the end-all. Then I got to know about Walker Evans and I'm sure he had an influence because he's one of my favorites - the fact that his stuff is so direct and so exciting.