New York, New York
Providence, Rhode Island
Summary of Aaron Siskind
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.
- 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 of Aaron Siskind
Wondering: “What is the subject matter of this apparently very personal world?” Aaron Siskind began photographing close-ups of weathered walls with peeling paint, stacked boulders, and cracked asphalt, pioneering abstract photographs that conveyed, the “qualities of expression that came out of my experience of music and literature.”
Important Art by Aaron Siskind
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.
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.
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.