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.

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.

No tricks? Everyday life as art?

Evans was one of the first to photograph like that. Atget obviously did it in France, but in the United States, Evans was the one we knew.

Of course, you're influenced by all kinds of people. And I don't think the influence is so obvious in your pictures, not the way that getting married or becoming a father is an influence. That affects your photography, too, because it broadens your understanding the same as travel or anything else.

Let's talk about your method. What would be a typical day of shooting for you?

Well, this has changed all my life. I used to photograph almost every day. Now, I don't go out as much as I used to. A typical day for me now would be to go out early in the morning and be home for lunch.

You made a switch from primarily black and white to primarily color photography about eight years ago. What prompted that?

Well, I've always done a lot of color but never had the opportunity to have anything printed. A dye-transfer print, when I was first doing color, cost about photographs) as slides. But in 1976 I recall I had a major retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, and I decided to stop black and white to prepare for the show. So, I decided to continue only with color. The Center for Creative Photography in Arizona made my first color show.

Let's talk about your criteria for a fine photograph. Out of all these rolls you're shooting, day in, day out, how many great images can you expect, say, in a month?

Sometimes you get a whole bunch from one afternoon and then you don't get any for six months. My guess is that during a good year you might get 20 to 25 very good ones and quite a few decent ones. That means doing a lot of pictures.

What do you consider a successful image?

I don't think that anybody knows what makes a good photo or a good painting. There are a lot of people that can talk about it, but they don't really know. It's a mysterious thing: like saying, ''how come that guy can run 100 yards in 10 seconds, and it takes me 15?'' No, I don't think it can be explained - though I don't criticize anybody for trying - because I've made pictures and I liked them and showed them to so-called great authorities. First they look at one, then another, and pronounce some no good and some good. And then, 10 years later , the same critic who didn't think they were good thinks they are good now. And vice versa. I mean, it's all nuts.

Do you set a limit on the number of prints which may be made from a negative?

I have done it at the request of a gallery, but I don't like it. It's a lot of baloney. The only ones who can profit from that are the gallery owners.

It's only in the last few decades that photography has been generally accepted as fine art. How do you view this trend?

That it's being accepted? I never expected it to be. And it's only just happened in . . . maybe the last 10 years. When I first taught at the Institute of Design in Chicago - that was in '46 - people would go into hysterics if somebody was to say that photography was art. People - painters in particular - ridiculed it for a long time. I would say about 1971 it was beginning to be accepted.

Are there any photographers whom you consider to be doing something different?

There are some very fine young photographers, though I don't think it's important whether they're doing something ''different.'' If they've got some life into the pictures they're making, that's what counts. I don't care for anything just because it's a new idea. I think what happens is that if you follow your nose, your own so-called bent, you will arrive at something very new , very different, very powerful.

Didn't you do something new with photography when you were starting out - taking what might be considered a snapshot and elevating it to new heights?

Yes, but it wasn't meant to be new. It just happened. That's what I'm trying to say - if you just keep photographing, these things happen. I think you have to have enough intelligence to recognize that you're doing something and pursue it.

Do you feel as though you've changed anything - such as the criteria for fine photography or the public's perception of art - with your photography?

Like a lot of photographers who have done something, I think I've awakened some people's seeing.

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