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Artists Aaron Siskind
Aaron Siskind Photo

Aaron Siskind

American Photographer

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

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

Died: February 8, 1991 - Providence, Rhode Island

Aaron Siskind Timeline

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
"Photography is a way of feeling, of touching, of loving. What you have caught on film is captured forever... it remembers little things, long after you have forgotten everything."
Aaron Siskind
"In any art, you don't know in advance what you want to say - it's revealed to you as you say it. That's the difference between art and illustration."
Aaron Siskind
"Almost inevitably there are tensions in the picture, tensions between the outside world and the inside world. For me, a successful picture resolves these tensions without eliminating them."
Aaron Siskind
"As photographers, we must learn to relax our beliefs. Move on objects with your eye straight on, to the left, around on the right. Watch them grow large as they approach, group and regroup as you shift your position. Relationships gradually emerge and sometimes assert themselves with finality. And that's your picture."
Aaron Siskind
"The only nature I am interested in is my own nature."
Aaron Siskind
"To me documentary photography means making a picture so that the viewer doesn't think about the man who made the picture. At its esthetic core is very old tradition in art: naturalism. And its purpose is to document all facets of social relationships"
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.

Biography

Aaron Siskind Photo

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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Aaron Siskind Biography Continues

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

More Aaron Siskind Artwork and Analysis:



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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.
View Influences Chart

Artists

Willem de KooningWillem de Kooning
Adolph GottliebAdolph Gottlieb
Mark RothkoMark Rothko

Personal Contacts

Robert MotherwellRobert Motherwell
Franz KlineFranz Kline
Barnett NewmanBarnett Newman

Movements

Abstract ExpressionismAbstract Expressionism
Documentary PhotographyDocumentary Photography

Influences on Artist
Aaron Siskind
Aaron Siskind
Years Worked: 1930 - 1991
Influenced by Artist

Artists

Edward WestonEdward Weston
Frederick SommerFrederick Sommer
Willem de KooningWillem de Kooning

Personal Contacts

Barnett NewmanBarnett Newman
Franz KlineFranz Kline
Robert MotherwellRobert Motherwell

Movements

Abstract PhotographyAbstract Photography

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 of 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 Recomended resource

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 Recomended resource

By Aaron Siskind

More Interesting Books about Aaron Siskind
Aaron Siskind's Romantic Notions of Decay Recomended resource

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

More Interesting Articles about Aaron Siskind
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Cite this page

Content compiled and written by Kara Fiedorek

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Kara Fiedorek
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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