“We look at the world and see what have learned to believe is there. We have been conditioned to expect.. but, as photographers, we must learn to relax our beliefs.” – Aaron Siskind
Aaron Siskind was an influential American teacher, editor, and photographer who is best known for his innovations in abstract photography. Born in New York City, Aaron Siskind graduated from the City College of New York in 1926 and taught high school English until he became interested in photography in 1930. He began to photograph in 1932, while he was an English teacher in the New York City public-school system.
In 1933, he joined the Film and Photo League in New York, a group of documentary photographers devoted to improving social conditions in contemporary society through their pictures. While involved with the League, Siskind made some of his most successful and well-known documentary photographs during the Depression.Unlike other documentary series of the period, Siskind’s Dead End: The Bowery and Harlem Document show as much concern for pure design as for the plight of his subjects.
After the late 1930s, Siskind no longer photographed people, concentrating instead on architectural photography, as in his series Old Houses of Bucks County, and on natural phenomena and still life. At the time, his work was assuming a new, more abstract focus, as evident in Tabernacle City, a series of photographs depicting the vernacular architecture of Bucks County, Pennsylvania. When his exhibition of this series at the Photo League caused many members to protest his photography outright, he left the organisation and found support among Mark Rothko, Franz Kline, and other painters, who recognised his elimination of pictorial space and his concentration on the arrangement of objects within the picture plane as qualities aligning his work with their own.
The abstract work for which he became best known was developed from his attempt to express his own states of mind in photography, rather than simply to record subject matter. In the early 1940s he began photographing patterns and textures of such mundane subjects such as coiled ropes, footprints in sand, and seaweed. Much like the members of Group f.64, Siskind achieved surprising, dramatic results by shooting his subjects at close range. Within a few years he became preoccupied with the abstract qualities of two-dimensional surfaces such as pavement, billboards, and walls, especially those transformed by weathering and decay. This theme was perhaps most poignantly realised in his 1967 series of photographs of the ruins of the Arch of Constantine and the Appia Antica in Rome. Siskind’s early abstract work was not immediately accepted by other photographers, but it was widely admired by painters such as Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline, who were associated with Abstract Expressionism. He in fact, exhibited his abstract photographs with these artists’ paintings.
Much of Siskind’s influence on photography resulted from his activities as a founding member of the Society for Photographic Education and as coeditor of Choice, a literary and photography magazine. His greatest influence, however, was as professor of photography at the Institute of Design of the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, a post he held from 1951 to 1971, when he became a professor of photography at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, Rhode Island. His publications include Aaron Siskind, Photographer (1965), a 30-year anthology of his photographs; Bucks County: Photographs of Early Architecture (1974); and another anthology entitled Places, 1966–1975 (1976).
Siskind’s photographs have been widely exhibited and he won many awards for his photography, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the Distinguished Photography Award from the Friends of Photography. Siskind was a photography instructor at Chicago’s Institute of Design and served as head of the department there from 1961 to 1971.
Siskind’s abstract photographs from the late 1940s and early 1950s were a major force in the development of avant-garde art in America. In rejecting the third dimension, this work belied the notion that photography was tied exclusively to representation. As such, Siskind’s work served as an invaluable link between the American documentary movement of the 1930s and the more introspective photography that emerged in the 1950s and 60s.