Today I offer a glimpse at the life and work of the great American Abstract Expressionist, Aaron Siskind (1903 – 1991), a photographer who has had a big influence on my approach to creative photography. Andy Grundburg of the New York Times characterized Siskind as “one of the most idiosyncratic and under appreciated figures in 20th century photography” (NY Times, Sept. 8, 1989). Anyone worthy of such a designation is someone I should know a little something about.
My introduction to Siskind came about when I read a post by John Paul Caponigro entitled Literally Abstract - Aaron Siskind . John Paul commented that Siskind “emphasized that what he made was not a representation of something else, but “the thing itself”.” This really piqued my interest since I’ve been wrestling with a personal artistic dilemma. Specifically, how can I claim to have created artistic works when I photograph objects which themselves are often the creative works of others (architecture or sculpture for example)? Caponigro went on to state “Sometimes a photograph looks nothing like the thing photographed. To photograph is to transform. A photograph is never the thing it represents and never just a photograph.” Armed with these words of encouragement and the work of Siskind identified as perfect example of this principle, I embarked on my journey of discovery, hoping to gain insights into my own work. So what did I learn?
Siskind began shooting in a very representational – almost documentary style, artfully - but faithfully - capturing the identity of the objects before the lens. Shooting in New York in the 1930s as a member of the New York Photo League – a group committed to depicting social aspects of the urban experience - he created his now famous collection of photographs of life in Harlem. Although very “documentary” in style, the fascination with light and shadow, form and line obvious in this early work is a foreshadowing of the hallmarks of his later abstract work.
Siskind was close friends with prominent abstract expressionist painters such as Franz Kline (in honor of whom he later created a tremendous photograph homage series) and Willem de Kooning, and like them was influenced by the non-representational paintings of Wassily Kandinsky. At this point in his career Siskind’s photography started to show signs of transformation from description to abstraction; from documentary to subjective creativity. It was in this transformation and Siskind’s perspective on his work that I found an answer to my own creative dilemma. He said it all. “When I make a photograph, I want it to be an altogether new object, complete and self-contained, whose basic condition is order.”
Siskind’s work is characterized by very tight, very flat compositions. His images commonly incorporate letters, bits of signs or posters, graffiti and other calligraphy-like forms. They are masterpieces of texture, line and visual rhythms; lights and darks; shapes and the shapeless. "Mr. Siskind's discernment of the poetic in the casual and passed-by aspects of every day reality are rich in their eloquence of line and shape and take their place with the serious expression of the modern American artists."
Although considered an abstract expressionist, Siskind’s work frequently contradicted the abstract principle of ambiguity by providing hints of recognizable objects in his compositions. But rather than decreasing intrigue I think his inclusion of a hint of context added additional dimensions of interest in his works. Viewers wonder not just “What is it?” but “What was it?”, “What did it say?, What became of it?” As he tells it, “We look at the world and see what we have learned to believe is there. We have been conditioned to expect... but, as photographers, we must learn to relax our beliefs.”
So what does all of this have to do with me and my approach to photography?
Well, for one thing, like Siskind I share a similar fascination with tones, shapes, lines, textures and the relationships among them. I also like to employ elements of abstract principles in my work. Clearly my creative abilities in these regard are orders of magnitude inferior to the likes of a Siskind. However, his work inspires me and provides insights to help me move in the general direction of his creative genius.
But more important than similarity in style, Siskind’s perspective on photography offered me a firm foothold in my uphill struggle to understand how I might express unique creativity through the lens regardless of what is in front of it. Two of his quotes summarize it best for me:
“Move on objects with your eye straight on, to the left, around on the right. Watch them grow large as they approach, group and regroup as you shift your position. Relationships gradually emerge and sometimes assert themselves with finality. And that's your picture.” (emphasis added)
“As the language or vocabulary of photography has been extended, the emphasis of meaning has shifted, shifted from what the world looks like to what we feel about the world and what we want the world to mean.”
Now that I have spent time with his photography and read some of his perspectives, Siskind will forever remain a major influence on my own creative efforts.
Thank you Aaron Siskind.
Check out these resources for additional information about Siskind and to view some of his photographs: