Aaron Siskind, New York City, 1930s. Aaron Siskind Archive.
© The Aaron Siskind Foundation. 76.6.38
Aaron Siskind has been called an abstract photographer and, indeed, many of his photographs feature subjects that are not easily identifiable. His photography, however, is not purely abstract. Rather, Siskind photographed recognizable places and things in ways that created a new means of communicating ideas, feelings, and perspectives on life and history. His innovation earned him a major place in the history of photography. Siskind studied literature at the City University of New York and intended to become a poet. In the early 1930s, while on vacation from his job as a public school English teacher, he began photographing with a camera he had been given as a gift by his father-in-law for recording the sights on his honeymoon. A world opened up for him, and he became an avid and artistically ambitious photographer whose long career was influential through both his art and his teaching. Siskind began his serious photography during the years of the Great Depression when many artists depicted poverty and social woes. He joined the Film and Photo League in New York and in 1936 formed a subgroup of the League called the Feature Group whose purpose was the collective production of documentary photographic essays. Along with other group members, Siskind produced the “Harlem Document,” his most famous documentary series, which focused human interest on the social, political, and economic conditions of Harlem and its residents.
In the 1940s, Siskind’s photographic interests moved away from socially centered, literal documentary works toward the more formal, poetic, conceptual images for which he became internationally renowned. This shift from document to metaphor embodied images of weathered fragments and textured surfaces through which he explored ideas of decay, fragmentation, and regeneration. He created pictures by closing in on his subjects, framing out distracting elements to enhance the emotional sense or allusive aspect he found compelling. Later he focused on surfaces to further condense the energies of splashed paint, graffiti marks and crumbling materials. In his late work he focused on natural formations -- tree trunks and lava fields -- where he isolated expressive figural forms. Siskind was an explorer of the visual world, and as he traveled he created pictures he hoped would express enduring truths about human experience. His work offered an important model for other photographers who wanted to communicate personal ideas by constructing compositions from the outside world rather than documenting poignant events. Siskind taught at Chicago’s Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology (1951-1971) and the Rhode Island School of Design (1971–1976) and, along with his friend and colleague Harry Callahan, was a major influence on succeeding generations of students. Along with Ansel Adams, Wynn Bullock, Harry Callahan, and Frederick Sommer, Siskind was one of the founding photographers whose archives established the Center for Creative Photography in 1975. The Siskind Archive includes 900 fine prints, all of his negatives, and many contact prints. It also includes correspondence; handwritten drafts of writings; exhibition, business, and publication files; and taped interviews.