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Artists Aaron Siskind

Aaron Siskind

American Photographer

Movements: Modern Photography, Documentary Photography, Abstract Expressionism

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

Died: February 8, 1991 - Providence, Rhode Island

Quotes

"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."
Aaron Siskind
"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."
Aaron Siskind

"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."

Synopsis

Aaron Siskind's early work as a social documentary photographer is best seen in his contributions to the Harlem Document (1932-40), a survey of life in Harlem. Siskind also identified with the ideas and styles of the Abstract Expressionist artists in New York in the 1940s. In these later photographs he continued to emphasize the modernist concern with the flatness of the picture plane, but intensified his approach to picture making - with close-up framing, as well as emphasis on texture, line, and visual rhymes - creating abstract images of the real world.

Key Ideas

Siskind turned the medium of photography on its head, taking pictures of found objects that were simultaneously true-to-life and abstract; he was one of the first photographers to combine what was known as "straight" photography (recording the real world as the lens "sees" it) with abstraction.
Siskind found emotional joy and tension in the process of discovering subjects and photographing them in such a way as to emphasize his reading of the world as essentially abstract, a series of echoing forms, lines, and textures.
Like the Abstract Expressionists, with whom he was friends, Siskind turned away from the social/political world post-World War II, and instead looked inward to seek meaning in the mostly inanimate forms he observed around him.

Most Important Art

Metal Hook (Early 1940s)
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
More Art Works


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Biography

Childhood

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 21 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.

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Early Training

Aaron Siskind Biography

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 (1939). 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. 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. During this time, Siskind was personally acquainted with Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell, Adolph Gottlieb, Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, and Willem de Kooning.

Late Years and Death

Aaron Siskind Photo

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 Dankmar 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 the age of 87.

Legacy

Aaron Siskind is the most compelling example of the shift in photography from social documentation to abstraction. Through his involvement with, and keen interest in, the painters of Abstract Expressionism, 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 three-dimensional world directly and mechanically, could be used to produce essentially two-dimensional, and abstract, images. One thinks of his influence on the work of Frederick Sommer, for example, who also emphasized flatness and abstraction. Siskind also exerted his influence on the work of other photographers in his capacity as a founding member of the Society for Photographic Education and as coeditor of the literary and photography magazine Choice. Perhaps to even a greater extent, his influence grew out of his teaching posts at the Institute of Design in Chicago from 1951 through 1971, and the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, Rhode Island.

Influences and Connections

Influences on artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Influenced by artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Aaron Siskind
Interactive chart with Aaron Siskind's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
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Artists

Willem de Kooning
Adolph Gottlieb
Mark Rothko

Friends

Robert Motherwell
Franz Kline
Barnett Newman

Movements

Abstract Expressionism
Documentary Photography
Aaron Siskind
Aaron Siskind
Years Worked: 1930 - 1991

Artists

Edward Weston
Frederick Sommer
Willem de Kooning

Friends

Barnett Newman
Franz Kline
Robert Motherwell

Movements

Abstract Photography

Original content written by Kara Fiedorek

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

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Useful Resources on Aaron Siskind

Books
Websites
Articles
Videos
More
The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.
biography
Aaron Siskind: Pleasures and Terrors

By Carl Chiarenza, Aaron Siskind

Aaron Siskind

By Charles Traub, Aaron Siskind, Gilles Mora

photographs
Aaron Siskind: Order With the Tensions Continuing

By Aaron Siskind, Barbara Crane, Jed Fielding, and Kenneth Josephson

Aaron Siskind 100

By Aaron Siskind

Aaron Siskind's Romantic Notions of Decay

By William Meyers
The New York Sun
June 5, 2008

Aaron Siskind, Keeping It Surreal

By Blake Gopnik
The Washington Post
July 11, 2004

Aaron Siskind

By Donald Kuspit
Artforum
January 2004

A Realist Who Morphed into an Unrealist

By Grace Glueck
The New York Times
November 21, 2003

Abstract Expressionism
Abstract Expressionism
Abstract Expressionism
A tendency among New York painters of the late 1940s and '50s, all of whom were committed to an expressive art of profound emotion and universal themes. The movement embraced the gestural abstraction of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, and the color field painting of Mark Rothko and others. It blended elements of Surrealism and abstract art in an effort to create a new style fitted to the postwar mood of anxiety and trauma.
ArtStory: Abstract Expressionism
Franz Kline
Franz Kline
Franz Kline
Franz Kline was an American abstract painter and one of the pioneers of Abstract Expressionism. His signature black-and-white abstractions were inspired by Japanese calligraphy, and inspired a later generation of artists who created Minimalism.
ArtStory: Franz Kline
Robert Motherwell
Robert Motherwell
Robert Motherwell
Robert Motherwell was a first-generation Abstract Expressionist whose paintings use hulking shapes, large-scale strokes and calligraphy, and wide expanses of muted color. Eloquent and well-educated, he wrote extensively on theories of art.
ArtStory: Robert Motherwell
Adolph Gottlieb
Adolph Gottlieb
Adolph Gottlieb
Adolph Gottlieb was an Abstract Expressionist painter who commonly used grids, pictographs, and primitive symbols in his work.
ArtStory: Adolph Gottlieb
Barnett Newman
Barnett Newman
Barnett Newman
Barnett Newman was an Abstract Expressonist painter in New York who painted large-scale fields of solid color, interrupted by vertical lines or "zips." His sometimes narrow or boxy canvases, part painting and part sculpture, were influential for Minimalism.
ArtStory: Barnett Newman
Mark Rothko
Mark Rothko
Mark Rothko
Mark Rothko was an Abstract Expressionist painter whose early interest in mythic landscapes gave way to mature works featuring large, hovering blocks of color on colored grounds.
ArtStory: Mark Rothko
Willem de Kooning
Willem de Kooning
Willem de Kooning
Willem de Kooning, a Dutch immigrant to New York, was one of the foremost Abstract Expressionist painters. His abstract compositions drew on Surrealist and figurative traditions, and typified the expressionistic 'gestural' style of the New York School.
ArtStory: Willem de Kooning
Modern Photography
Modern Photography
Modern Photography
Modern photography refers to a range of different approaches. Some, associated with 'Straight Photography,' celebrate clarity and documentary truthfulness. Others, associated with 'New Vision' photography, are often characterized by unusual perspectives, novel print techniques, and abstraction.
Modern Photography
Documentary Photography
Documentary Photography
Documentary Photography
Documentary photography attempts to portray the social realities of its subjects' lives. Many early twentieth-century photographers worked in this vein, capturing their subjects unawares or amidst their daily routines; famous examples include August Sander, Jacob Riis, and Walker Evans.
Documentary Photography
Edward Weston
Edward Weston
Edward Weston
Edward Weston was an American photographer and a co-founder of Group f/64, a collection of San Francisco photographers who celebrated the American West. Weston was a pioneer of straight photography, a modern style that defied the soft-edged, painterly style of Pictorialism.
Edward Weston
Frederick Sommer
Frederick Sommer
Frederick Sommer
Frederick Sommer was an Italian-born American painter, watercolorist and photographer during the twentieth century. His most groundbreaking works were a series of drawings inspired by scores of classical music.
Frederick Sommer
Abstract Photography
Abstract Photography
Abstract Photography
Abstract photography was a direct offshoot of Abstract Expressionism, popularized by Aaron Siskind in the 1950s. Not relying on the usual facets of photography - focus, composition, and theme - abstract photography uses color, shade and form as its subject matter, much the way abstract painters do. The result is often evocative and indecipherable.
Abstract Photography