The Story Behind Jo Ann Callis’ Subversive 1970s Photo Series, Early Colour

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Early Color c. 1976 (woman with halter)Photography by Jo Ann Callis

The work is about “the beauty and scariness of life, the difficulty of being alive, the fragility of staying alive and keeping your sanity,” says Jo An Callis as her photo series Early Colour goes on show in Paris

Before Cindy Sherman and Gregory Crewdson, there was Jo Ann Callis, a conceptual photographer who began staging mysterious and erotic photos for her seminal Early Color series while studying with the legendary Robert Heinecken at UCLA in 1973. Just as American women were achieving new levels of personal and political liberation, Callis began exploring sensuality, sexuality, and the female body in the domestic sphere.

Inspired by artists Paul Outerbridge, Hans Bellmer, and Pierre Molinier, Callis crafted enigmatic visual metaphors of power and play, dominance and submission, desire and intimacy, drawing from the challenges she faced as a divorced mother of two in her mid-30s reentering the world on her own terms. Her cinematic images are filled with the exquisite tension and anxiety of freedom itself – the courage to fail and triumph on her own terms.

A selection of these landmark works go on view today at Jo Ann Callis and Jan Groover: Early Color at Galerie Miranda in Paris – a new exhibition showcasing the work of two groundbreaking women artists at the heart of the 1970s American “new color” school of photography. Now 81 years old, Callis looks back at this transformative period of her life that reflects the spirit of the times just as the second wave of feminism reignited the Women’s Liberation Movement. I consider myself a success because I survived doing what I love,” Callis says. “It didn’t pay well but I did what I wanted and the rest is gravy. I don’t regret anything.” Here, in her own words, Callis talks about feminism, divorce, the death of her father, and finding her artistic voice.

“Women’s Liberation started with voting rights long ago but wasn’t in the forefront in my life until the 1960s and 1970s. The traditional roles where men went out and earned a living while women stayed home to raise children and do housework started to change as women demanded their own autonomy. Men either went along with it or you got rid of them, so divorce rates went sky high. I was coming out of a loveless marriage that I was in from the ages of 20 to 35. I had two children, got a divorce, went back to school, and started teaching, so I was juggling a lot of balls.

“I was coming into my own in the 70s and Robert Heinecken came into my life at the right time. I went back to school and there he was. I didn’t know anything about photography – I didn’t even know how to work a camera except an automatic one. From the very beginning, it was like he could see inside of me and maybe that was because I was making work that provokes that kind of interiority. The way he would talk about it, I started to see things that I knew were there but I just didn’t have the words for it. He was supportive and changed my life in every way; he even introduced me to my future husband at that time.

“Many people were trying different photographic processes in the 70s; that was very big. Robert told me, ‘The only reason to learn technical things is if you need to use them. You seem to be doing very well. Don’t feel pressured to do everything well. Just find your voice and explore it.’ That was very comforting. It gave me permission to be free. I was trying to figure out a way to be different from other people. I had seen so many pictures of the landscape that I couldn’t imagine what I could add. But my life was so difficult that I decided to use it as a wellspring. I was really naive because I hadn’t even looked at pictures. The only photographs I knew were from The Family of Man [exhibition].

“I had no critical abilities but I wanted to express who I was. That gave me a lot of freedom and a lot of guts. It’s hard to keep ideas coming year after year and the only way for me to do that is to get in touch with what I’m thinking, feeling, and imagining. Photography can be a very representative medium, and I wanted to use it to create metaphors to talk about things. My world opened up and it was a real awakening because I have always been a ‘glass half empty’ person. I’ve been reluctant to look on the sunny side because I could always see another rain cloud coming along. My dad died when I was 20 before I could resolve a lot of issues with him. He’s never coming back and I cannot replace what I’ve lost. Some things are just left hanging forever, and you go on and make your life. 

“I was always tied to the home. I was not out marching or burning bras but I was watching those things on TV at the time and feeling all these feelings. That’s where I went in my work: the beauty and scariness of life, the difficulty of being alive, the fragility of staying alive and keeping your sanity. You’re never going to conquer your vulnerability but by naming it, there’s relief. You don’t have to pretend it’s not there or [that you’re not] thinking about it 24/7. It’s always there, underlying everything that I do. Looking at the vulnerability makes me feel happier.”

Jo Ann Callis and Jan Groover: Early Color is on show at at Galerie Miranda in Paris until November 13, 2022.