Siskind, Aaron

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Siskind, Aaron

(b. 4 December 1903 in New York City, d. 8 February 1991 in Providence, Rhode Island), documentary and abstract photographer whose nonrepresentational photographs link him to the abstract expressionist art movement.

Siskind was the fifth child of Jacob Siskind and Riva Mystrovitch, Ukrainian Jewish immigrants who settled in New York City’s Lower East Side at the end of the nineteenth century. Jacob made his living as a tailor and Riva was a homemaker. Not long after the birth of their sixth (and last) child, the couple moved to the Upper West Side, where Siskind spent the majority of his youth. Due to his gregarious personality, Siskind rarely spent time at home. He was preoccupied primarily with the events of the street and was excited by the political exchanges and debates that abounded in the neighborhood. As a teenager he joined the Junior Young People’s Socialist League.

A curious and serious student, Siskind had a great interest in poetry and music. After high school he majored in English at The City College of New York. As a member of his college literary club, Siskind befriended the painters and fellow students Barnett Newman and Adolph Gottlieb, who would later become leading figures of modern American painting. This was the first time Siskind applied his intellectual and creative thoughts to the discussion of visual art. When Siskind graduated in 1926, he accepted a position teaching English to younger students in the New York City public school system. In the spring of 1929 Siskind married Sidonie (“Sonia”) Glatter, an artistic and intelligent woman he had met years earlier at the Junior Young People’s Socialist League who had also become a teacher in the New York City public school system.

It was not until the age of twenty-six that Siskind started taking pictures with a camera he had received as a gift. Siskind experimented by carefully recording scenes of his New York City neighborhood. In 1933, after three years of teaching himself photography, he felt skilled enough to join the Workers Film and Photo League (the Photo League). Like many other artists of the Great Depression, Siskind was attracted to the group’s focus on political issues and social reform. Convinced that photography could aid the worker’s plight, Photo League members documented the economic and social struggles of New York City’s denizens.

By 1937 Siskind’s photographic contributions were being publicly acknowledged. Unfortunately, his wife’s mental health had deteriorated and she was permanently committed to a mental hospital. Seven years later in the spring of 1945, the marriage was officially terminated through annulment. Siskind’s loss was reflected in a series of photographs created in 1938 that document the decay and demolition of the New York Civic Repertory Theatre.

For the next few years, Siskind immersed himself in documentary projects, producing the series Dead End: The Bowery, Park Avenue North and South and the acclaimed Harlem Document, which was exhibited at the New School for Social Research in New York City. In 1939 he was commissioned to photograph the architecture of Bucks County, Pennsylvania, for a book. The resulting black-and-white photographs demonstrated a focus on visual composition and aesthetic order. From this point on, Siskind paid greater attention to the formal and symbolic elements of the photograph than to the subject matter. Sadly, other Photo League members did not share his new interest in the language of visual composition. After numerous creative disagreements, Siskind resigned from the group in 1940.

Siskind’s black-and-white photographs isolate details of exterior objects, creating a flat, abstract picture that only hints at its original source. These unique photographs are not mere documentation of the world but assertions of an individual vision. In 1946 his photographs were included in the Museum of Modern Art’s New Photographers exhibition, and in 1947 he received his first solo show at the Charles Egan Gallery in New York City.

In 1949 Siskind quit his job as a schoolteacher and took a position teaching photography at Trenton Junior College in Trenton, New Jersey. Still living in Manhattan, he was a member of “The Club,” a social group for contemporary artists founded in 1950. Aaron met Cathy Spencer at “The Club” and married her in Edgarton, Massachusetts in the summer of 1952. Also that year, Siskind was offered and accepted a teaching position at the Institute of Design in Chicago. There he worked closely with fellow teacher and photographer Harry Callahan, who would become a lifelong friend.

Throughout the 1950s Siskind continued his exploration of balance and tension between abstract elements, exhibiting his photographs throughout the United States. In 1957 Siskind and Spencer divorced, at which time he concentrated on teaching. The book Aaron Siskind: Photographs, with text by the critic Harold Rosenberg, was published in 1958.

On 25 July 1960 Siskind married a third time, to Carolyn Brandt, an aspiring poet with a young daughter. The following year he was appointed the head of the photography department at Chicago’s Institute of Design. Throughout the 1960s Siskind traveled frequently to Mexico, Italy, and throughout the United States. In 1964 he received a show at the Art Institute of Chicago and in 1965 a retrospective exhibition of his work organized by the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York, traveled to different American venues. Supported by a Guggenheim fellowship in 1966, Siskind revisited Rome, Italy, in order to “capture the visual layers of history” in photographs. In the late 1960s Siskind participated in numerous conferences, exhibitions, and symposiums.

Siskind had grown increasingly unhappy with the structure of the Institute of Design’s curriculum, and in 1970 he retired. One year later, at the age of sixty-seven, he became a professor at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence.

In 1975 the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, Arizona, accepted his donation of the Aaron Siskind Archive, which includes negatives, photographic prints, and other documents of his career. In 1976, the same year Siskind was awarded a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and retired from his teaching position, his wife Carolyn died.

In the last years of his life, Siskind kept active in the art world, curating a show of “New Photography” at the Rhode Island School of Design in 1978. Well into the 1980s, in addition to international travel, he continued to meet with students to discuss their work. Siskind died of a stroke in Providence at the age of eighty-seven.

Largely because of Siskind’s work, photography has become accepted as a legitimate medium for artistic expression. Like the abstract expressionist painters, he sought a compositional harmony and “one-ness” of the pictorial elements. Siskind’s photographs opened up a new avenue for photographic expression. Because of his art, the camera is no longer seen as an objective machine but as a tool for expressing emotion and feeling.

A collection of Siskind’s negatives, prints, and other personal records are housed in the Aaron Siskind Archive, Center for Creative Photography, in Tucson, Arizona. Carl Chiarenza, Aaron Siskind: Pleasures and Terrors (1982), is an in-depth account of Siskind’s life up to 1982. Additionally, Thomas Hess’s Places: Aaron Siskind Photographs (1971), and Peter Turner, Aaron Siskind: Photographs 1932-1978 (1979), feature examples of the artist’s work. William Morgan, Bucks County: Photographs of Early Architecture (1974), displays ninety-three early photographs by the artist. Harlem Document, Photographs 1932–1940: Aaron Siskind (1981), with a forward by Gordon Parks, is a compilation of Siskind’s early documentary series. An obituary is in the New York Times (9 Feb. 1991).

Renee Coppola