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Aaron Siskind Photo

Aaron Siskind Artworks

American Photographer

Born: December 4, 1903 - New York, New York
Died: February 8, 1991 - Providence, Rhode Island
Aaron Siskind Timeline

Progression of Art

c. 1938

Reflection of a Man in a Dresser Mirror, from Harlem Document

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

Early 1940s

Metal Hook

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

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

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

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

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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Content compiled and written by Kara Fiedorek

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Aaron Siskind 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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First published on 05 Jun 2014. Updated and modified regularly
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