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Modern Artist: Aaron Siskind
Aaron Siskind was an American photographer who engaged with many of the ideas of Abstract Expressionism popular in 1940s New York City, inflecting photography with an eye towards the flatness of the picture plane. His approach to making a picture with intimate framing, emphasis on texture, line, and visual rhymes, created images that obscure content and abstract the empirical world.

Key Ideas / Information
  • Siskind was a photographer who befriended many of the most influential Abstract Expressionist painters and came to take photographs in a similar style.
  • Siskind turned the medium of photography on its head, taking pictures of found objects that were simultaneously true-to-life and reduced to their formal common denominators.
  • Siskind's photographs make clear that he delights in viewing the world as essentially abstract, a series of echoing forms, lines, and texture.

Aaron Siskind was born the fifth of six children in a Russian-Jewish immigrant family in New York City. The first art forms to catch his interest were poetry and music, which led him to believe he would become a writer. After graduating from DeWitt Clinton High School, Siskind earned his Bachelor of Social Science degree in Literature from the College of the City of New York in 1926 and went on to teach English in the New York City public school system for twenty-one years. A camera given as a gift for his wedding to Sidonie Glaller in 1930 galvanized his interest in photography. He was said to have spent much of his honeymoon taking pictures in Bermuda.

Early Training
With his newfound love for photography, Siskind became an enthusiastic member of the New York Photo League. This organization of amateur and professional photographers and filmmakers specialized in social documentation. By the time the Photo League became official in 1936, it was the only noncommercial photography school in the United States. It trained a generation of photographers and involved some of the most notable of the era, including Margaret Bourke-White and Berenice Abbott. Siskind became director of the Photo League's Feature Group in 1936, leading a unit of photographers who produced photo-essays of working-class, urban life, with titles such as "The Most Crowded Block in the World." His photographs of Harlem exemplify the spirit of his first encounters with the camera, which he used to gain access to and frame the empirical world of Depression-era New York City like many of his contemporaries. Even in these referential, representational photographs, Siskind's eye for form remains salient. These early photographs form the backdrop to the later work that came to define his artistic vision: his drive to obscure his subject by focusing on form at the expense of content and context.

Siskind's work continued in this direction in the early 1940s, when he left the Photo League and cultivated connections with members of the New York School of Abstract Expressionism. During a trip to Martha's Vineyard, Siskind began approaching still objects from a very intimate range, framing them up-close so as to underscore the formal qualities of their lines, colors, and textures. This new, more overtly abstracted work impressed the art elite of New York, and Siskind began to show his work at the Charles Egan Gallery, where he was in the company of many Abstract Expressionist painters.

Late Period and death
At the invitation of the photographer Harry Callahan, Siskind moved to Chicago in 1951 to teach photography at the Institute of Design. When Callahan left the institute ten years later, Siskind took over as head of the photography department. His interest in the flatness of the picture plane, already evident in his pictures of the 1940s, became literalized in his fascination with architectural facades. In 1952 and 1953, Siskind led his students in a project to document the buildings of Louis Sullivan and Adler.

Again at the bidding of his close friend and colleague Callahan, Siskind left the Institute to join the staff of the Rhode Island School of Design in 1971, where he remained until retiring from teaching five years later. In 1984, the Aaron Siskind Foundation became dedicated to raising money to support contemporary photography. He died in Providence, Rhode Island on February 8, 1991, at eighty-seven years old.

Through his involvement and keen interest in the painters of Abstract Expressionism, Aaron Siskind came to turn the very medium of photography on its head. In his hands, the camera, which from its inception had been defined by its power to translate the empirical world directly and mechanically, produced abstract and formal images.

Below are Aaron Siskind's major influences, and the people and ideas that he influenced in turn.

Willem De Kooning
Adolph Gottlieb
Mark Rothko
Robert Motherwell
Franz Kline
Barnett Newman
Abstract Expressionism
Documentary Photography
Aaron Siskind
Years Worked: 1930 - 1991
Edward Weston
Frederick Sommer
Willem De Kooning
Barnett Newman
Franz Kline
Robert Motherwell
Abstract Photography

"We look at the world and see what we have learned to believe is there. We have been conditioned to expect... but, as photographers, we must learn to relax our beliefs."

"As the language or vocabulary of photography has been extended, the emphasis of meaning has shifted, shifted from what the world looks like to what we feel about the world and what we want the world to mean."

"The business of making a photograph may be said in simple terms to consist of three elements: the objective world (whose permanent condition is change and disorder), the sheet of paper on which the picture will be realized, and the experience that brings them together."

Content written by:
  Kara Fiedorek

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