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Aaron Siskind Photo

Aaron Siskind

American Photographer

Movements and Styles: Modern Photography, Documentary Photography, Abstract Expressionism

Born: December 4, 1903 - New York, New York

Died: February 8, 1991 - Providence, Rhode Island

Aaron Siskind Timeline

Important Art by Aaron Siskind

The below artworks are the most important by Aaron Siskind - that both overview the major creative periods, and highlight the greatest achievements by the artist.

Reflection of a Man in a Dresser Mirror, from Harlem Document (c. 1938)
Artwork Images

Reflection of a Man in a Dresser Mirror, from Harlem Document (c. 1938)

Artwork description & Analysis: Siskind's first pictures show a decidedly more straightforward approach to picture making than the later work for which he became known. Nevertheless, his formalist eye is evident even in this documentary work. Many details make this photograph visually satisfying. Starting at the upper left is a lighting fixture with two "candles," but only one bulb. This part of the image is the beginning of a series of contrasts observable in the rest of the photograph, as the viewer follows the general line of the C-curve from fixture to dress to dresser to man. These contrasts include positive objects and negative space, pictures within pictures (the man in the reflection and the pictures on the dresser are both part of Siskind's "picture,") the contrast of the male figure in the mirror versus the female dress on the hanger, and the presence of the male figure and the absence of the female figure. Although the male figure is a specific individual and technically the focal point, he is flattened in his own reflection against the back wall, pressed into the service of the overall design of the photograph. Instead, the small, but aesthetic, lamp base in the lower center of the picture, with its slightly tilted shade, could be seen as alluding to the additional contrast of the middle class values and aspirations versus the limited opportunity and resources of those living in Harlem.

Gelatin silver print - George Eastman House, Rochester, NY

Metal Hook (Early 1940s)
Artwork Images

Metal Hook (Early 1940s)

Artwork description & Analysis: In the early 1940s, while on a visit to Martha's Vineyard, Siskind began photographing at close range everyday objects that interested him or that seemed to reflect his emotional state at the time - things like ropes, seaweed, and footprints in the sand. Metal Hook is one of Siskind's first photographs that truly focuses on the abstract visual language of ordinary objects. The curvilinear echoes between the hook and its rope, the highly detailed textures of the ground and rusty metal, as well as the overall emphasis on form achieved through the close cropping of the frame, conspire to produce an image that abstracts reality. The flatness of the image as a whole also serves to assert the graphic quality of the metal hook itself as a sign/symbol for male and female, thus suggesting a level of content in addition to that of form.

Gelatin silver print

Jerome, Arizona (1949)
Artwork Images

Jerome, Arizona (1949)

Artwork description & Analysis: The close range of this photograph of peeling paint precludes the viewer from gaining any foothold into the space of the picture, emphasizing its ultimate flatness. Siskind was especially drawn to surfaces that resembled the canvases of the Abstract Expressionist painters, with whom he was friends. The viewer can enjoy the paradox of Siskind's use of the "straight" image of reality that is also totally abstract. The artist is still sensitive to composition, with a centralized density of darkly textured material balanced by fewer and smaller dark areas as well as the delicate lines produced by the cracking areas of paint. However, the artist, like the Abstract Expressionists, also admitted his interest in expressing his own inner drama. Thus, the high degree of abstraction in Siskind's photographs of this kind encourages, and indeed, frees the viewer to determine the nature of that drama.

Gelatin silver print - Nelson-Atkins Museum Collection

Untitled #56 (1956)
Artwork Images

Untitled #56 (1956)

Artwork description & Analysis: In this work from the Pleasures and Terrors of Levitation series, Siskind froze the motion of athletes by using extremely fast shutter speeds that left crisp silhouettes. He captured the figure at moments that emphasized their abstract shape, pinning their dark form against a cloudy-bright sky so as to emphasize the abstractness of the shapes. One of his most famous series of photographs, the Pleasures and Terrors of Levitation (1950s-60s) underscores how Siskind came to see even human figures in terms of abstract forms -- the viewer might read an image from this series as a kind of pictograph, a combination of picture and letter that represents a word or idea. In this sense, the photograph might be understood as an emblem or symbol for the passage into adulthood, and the journey of life itself, punctuated by moments of heightened experience. The title of the series also implies that there is an emotional component to the work. In this photograph, the young man seems suspended in the air, blissfully unaware of what may follow.

Gelatin silver print

Jalapa 66, from Homage to Franz Kline (1974)
Artwork Images

Jalapa 66, from Homage to Franz Kline (1974)

Artwork description & Analysis: The bold, gestural lines of the black graffiti on the side of this Mexican building reminded Siskind of the work of the Abstract Expressionist painter Franz Kline, with whom he became close in the 1950s. Siskind must have also wished to capture the drama and tension between the square format of his photographic image and the bursting energy of the curvilinear, graphic marks, between the intentional marks and the seemingly accidental drips, and between the dark marks and their "shadows" in white -- a possible reference to the photographic negative, where things that are in reality dark (like shadows) appear light, and vice versa. Thus, at a level deeper than merely being influenced by the work of a painter, Siskind also points toward more fundamental differences between the two art forms of painting and photography.

Gelatin silver print - Museum of Contemporary Photography

Recife (Olinda) 8 (1986)
Artwork Images

Recife (Olinda) 8 (1986)

Artwork description & Analysis: One of Siskind's later works, Recife (Olinda) 8 was taken during his travels in Northeastern Brazil. Siskind never rearranged elements in his photographs, but simply moved the camera to capture an image that emphasized the essentially abstract nature of something seemingly mundane. The photograph here is a natural extension of the abstraction of his earlier work that also alluded to the presence of humans, but without actually showing them. In addition to the "human" feet, other fragments confront the viewer on the surface of the picture plane: the at-one-time utilitarian unit of which the foot templates are a part, leaning against a stone surface barely visible at the left; the unevenly divided planks of the unit, half painted dark and half light; and another portion of a similar unit separated from the first and at an angle, but leaning against a wooden backdrop. Together, the dark areas read as a kind of arrow pointing right that counteracts the direction of the footsteps moving upwards. Which direction are we to follow? The result is that we are forced to remain as viewers attached to the abstract surface - noting with pleasure the additional details of age, texture, misaligned lines, and accidental drips.

Gelatin silver print - Museum of Contemporary Photography



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Aaron Siskind Photo

Related Art and Artists

July 4th (1957)
Artwork Images

July 4th (1957)

Artist: Willem de Kooning

Artwork description & Analysis: In the late 1950s de Kooning temporarily left aside his preoccupation with women, and began to explore landscape,although there often seem to be few direct references to landscape in these paintings. These works from the late 1950s and early 1960s were made during the period in which de Kooning and Franz Kline shared a relationship of mutual influence, and the structure underlying July 4th is certainly reminiscent of Kline. Notably, Kline, who had long painted in only black and white, began using color in this period.

Oil on paper - National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Frozen Sounds Number 1 (1951)
Artwork Images

Frozen Sounds Number 1 (1951)

Artist: Adolph Gottlieb

Artwork description & Analysis: Gottlieb began his Imaginary Landscapes series in 1951. Here, the artist explored the question of depth by creating a canvas split by an apparent horizon without a true illusion of space. Vestiges of his pictographs, including automatic writing and figures, emerge from the earthy tones of the lower portion of the picture in contrast to the solid block of color inhabited by ovoid and rectangular shapes at the top of the composition. The absence of the grid structure from Gottlieb's previous works draws new focus to color and form over symbols. This stylistic shift is reinforced by the Imaginary Landscapes' addition of brighter tones and colors than the earlier Pictographs. Both expression and content are implied by the frail nature of the barely indicated "pictographs" embedded in the figurative portion of the picture, while the shapes hover in the upper portion, aloof, but insistent.

Oil on canvas - The Whitney Museum of Art

Chief (1950)
Artwork Images

Chief (1950)

Artist: Franz Kline

Artwork description & Analysis: Critics' comments on the pictures included in Kline's breakthrough show of 1950 set the pattern for later reviews with their variety of analogies. Chief was the name of a locomotive Kline remembered from his childhood, and it's possible to read the image as a sensory reminiscence of its power, sound and steaming engine. Some also believed that the artist's obsession with black was connected to his childhood spent in a coal-mining community dominated by heavy industry. Many have since noted, however, that the forms in these early abstractions seem to have evolved from Kline's drawings of his wife Elizabeth. He made numerous sketches of her sitting in a rocking chair in the years when she began to succumb to mental illness; the circular forms in Chief bear comparison with the blank circles representing her face in the drawings.

Oil on canvas - The Museum of Modern Art, New York

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Content compiled and written by Kara Fiedorek

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Content compiled and written by Kara Fiedorek
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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