Close-up from a Distance: photographs by Aaron Siskind

siskind harlem document 1935.png

Aaron Siskind (1903-1991) was the fifth of six children born to a Russian-Jewish immigrant family in New York’s Lower East Side. Siskind worked as an English teacher before being given a camera as a wedding present and starting his photography career thereafter.

 

Siskind discovered the Workers Film and Photo League by chance walking down Lexington Avenue. He quickly befriended the local members, finding himself a group of like-minded artists who shared his passion for civil rights. Siskind’s social consciousness would inform the documentary photographs of his early work.

Harlem, 1934

Gelatin Silver Print, printed 1976

circa 7 7/8 x 11 inches (image size)

11 x 14 inches (paper size)

Signed, titled and dated in ink on recto.

The Film and Photo League emerged out of the Great Depression through formal and informal ties with the Communist Party.  The membership included amateurs and professionals united in an effort to take pictures and make films which championed social reform.

 

By the time the Photo League became official in 1936, it was the only noncommercial photography school in the United States. A generation of photographers were trained by the Photo League.  Among their ranks were Sol Libsohn, Sid Grossman, Martin Elkort, Morris Engel, Arthur Leipzig, Rebecca Lepkoff, Louis Stettner and Lisette Model.


Siskind became director of the Photo League's Feature Group in 1936. He led a unit of photographers who produced photo essays of the working-class and urban life. Siskind’s Harlem photographs epitomize his first encounters with a camera; humanist, unintrusive, rare glances at a Depression-laden city.

“Aaron Siskind's Harlem Document, a mirror of my own past, speaks explicitly for itself.  It is an ongoing memory of Black people... grasping a patch of happiness whenever and wherever they could find it.  Those same tenements that once imprisoned me are still there... holding other restless black boys for sentence without trial.”

Gordon Parks from the forward to Harlem Document: Photographs 1932-1940: Aaron Siskind

Woman in her Kitchen, Harlem 1936c.png

Woman in her Kitchen, Harlem, 1936c.

Gelatin Silver Print, printed 1976c.

9 x 7 inches
Titled and dated on recto. (unsigned)

siskind - Boys in Empty Tenement, Harlem, 1935.png
siskind -Savoy Dancers, Harlem, 1935c..png

Boys in Empty Tenement, Harlem, 1935

Gelatin Silver Print, printed 1976c.

14 x 11 inches (paper size)
Signed in ink on recto below image.

Savoy Dancers, Harlem, 1935c.

Gelatin Silver Print, printed 1976

11 ¾ x 9 5/8 inches (image size)

14 x 11 inches (paper size)

Signed, titled and dated “circa 1935” in ink

on recto below image.

Siskind's Harlem Document series is a distillation of three projects done between 1932 - 1940.  Siskind first started photographing in Harlem after joining the Photo League in 1932.  He continued this streak during his participation in the League's Feature Group.  It contained work from a project called "The Most Crowded Block" shot between 1939 and 1940.  Harlem Document displays the diversity of the neighborhood; a vibrant, culturally rich community within an impoverished, socially oppressed borough.
 

As he became more enmeshed in the photographic community, Siskind grew less and less convinced of the medium’s effectiveness in changing social ills. While working in the social-realist landscape, Siskind cultivated an interest in metaphor, challenging preconceived notions of structure and form within photography. He was in search of the relationship between ideas and aesthetics.

During his summers on Martha's Vineyard,  Siskind trained his lens on the architecture of the Methodist Campground cottages in Oak Bluffs. The resulting series, Tabernacle City, is considered one of the first serious studies of the architecture of the Campground. It also represents a turning point in Siskind’s career, marking his transition from a documentarian into an abstract photographer.

(from) Tabernacle City ca. 1935

Gelatin Silver Print, printed later

7 ½ x 9 3/8 inches

Signed in pencil on verso.

Photographer's ink stamp on verso.

Siskind's Chicago address handwritten in pencil on verso.

“From Tabernacle City circa 1935” in Siskind's hand

in pencil on verso. Other notations on verso.

Siskind - (from) Tabernacle City ca. 1935.png
Siskind - Seaweed 1, 1947.png

He began photographing nature close-up, eliminating naturalistic space and concentrating on the primacy of the flat, two-dimensional surface of images. As a result, he became invested in photographs as physical objects on their own, rather than reflections of the outside world.

Seaweed 1, 1947

Gelatin Silver Print, printed later

8 x 5 ½ inches (image size)

10 x 8 inches (paper size)

Signed, titled, and dated in pencil on verso.

Notated “SW1/47 5” in pencil on verso.

Siskind - Martha's Vineyard 108, 1954 .png

Martha's Vineyard 108, 1954

Gelatin Silver Print, printed later

16 x 20 inches

Signed, titled and dated in ink on recto below image.

Siskind - Chicago 53, 1952.png

Siskind's work continued in this direction in the early 1940s and he eventually left the Photo League. He started to cultivate connections with members of the New York School of Abstract Expressionism.  In 1947 Siskind exhibited his new work at the Charles Egan Gallery in New York. It was the first of four shows at the 57th Street gallery between 1947 and 1954. The Egan Gallery was the focal point for Abstract Expressionist artists and Siskind became an official member of the group.  He was friends with painter Franz Kline, Mark Rothko and other painters, often gathering to drink, laugh, and debate each other.

Chicago 53, 1952

Vintage Gelatin Silver Print

14 x 11 inches

Photographer's ink stamp on verso.

Pencil notations on verso.

Chicago 224 (I Want a Raise), 1953
Gelatin Silver Print, printed later
10 3/8 x 10 1/8 inches
Signed, titled, and dated in pencil on verso.

Siskind - Chicago 224 (I Want a Raise), 1953.png
Siskind - Lithuanian Store 1, 1954.png

Lithuanian Store 1, 1954

   

From Aaron Siskind “Cool Man” Portfolio.

A major series of Siskind’s was Pleasures and Terrors of Levitation, which he created in the 1950s. It featured a series of poised young men, as if suspended midair. Siskind’s depiction of the human body here is a weightless mass of coiled energy. He achieved this effect by photographing divers on Chicago’s lakefront against an unmodulated sky.

 

Siskind explained in a 1978 interview what attracted him to the divers: “I was walking along the lake in Chicago, and I saw these guys jumping off a diving board. It was a beautiful Sunday, and I was just walking along with my Rolleiflex. I sat down and started taking pictures of them without knowing exactly what I was doing, only that I was taking pictures of divers. The results didn’t particularly interest me until I looked at one that struck me. This guy was a diver, but he wasn’t a diver. He was levitating as if in a dream state, and then I knew what I was after.”

Devoid of context, it is unclear whether the divers are hurling downward or jumping up, just off the ground or free-falling from great heights. They embody the title’s ambiguous metaphor of simultaneous pleasure and terror.

Pleasures and Terrors of Levitation, 1954

Gelatin Silver Print

Siskind - Pleasures and Terrors of Levitation, 1954.png
Siskind - Pleasures and Terrors of Levitation, 1954  Gelatin Silver Print.png

In the 1950s, Siskind established himself as a photography teacher. He began part-time instructing at Trenton College in 1949, then moved to Black Mountain College in North Carolina in 1951. After working with Harry Callahan, Siskind was invited to join the staff of the Institute of Design in Chicago. The school was founded by László Moholy-Nagy as the New Bauhaus. Siskind taught at the institute from 1951-1971. Thereafter, he left for the Rhode Island School of Design where Callahan headed the department of photography. Siskind continued to teach at the school until his retirement in 1976.

siskind - Celaya, Mexico 1955.png

Celaya, Mexico, 1955

Gelatin Silver Print, printed 1977 or before

14 x 11 inches (paper size)

Mounted to board with '1977' date stamp on verso.

Provenance: Gifted by Siskind to his long-time printer.

Siskind - Acolman 4, 1955.png

Acolman 4, 1955

Gelatin Silver Print

9 5/16 x 12 1516 inches (image size)

11 x 14 inches (paper size)

Signed in pencil on verso.

Printing notations and “Acolman 4 1955”

in pencil on verso.

Siskind - Chicago Facade 15, 1957.png

Chicago Facade 15, 1957

Vintage Gelatin Silver Print

10 1/18 x 12 11/16 inches

Signed and titled in pencil on verso.

Notations in pencil on verso.

Chicago Facade 7, 1960
Gelatin Silver Print, printed later
12 x 9 inches
Signed, titled, and dated in ink on recto below image.

Siskind - Chicago Facade 7, 1960 .png
Siskind - Chicago Facade 7, 1960 .png

“Both the object and the idea are in the picture in varying degrees of harmony and dominance... Almost inevitably there are tensions in the picture – tensions between the outside world and an inside world.  For me a successful picture resolves these tensions without eliminating them.” ​

Aaron Siskind from his essay “This Is My Best”, Art Photography, June 1954

Siskind - Chicago 27, 1960.png

The close range of this photograph excludes the viewer from gaining foothold into the space of the picture, emphasizing its flatness. Siskind was drawn to surfaces which resembled the canvases of the Abstract Expressionist painters. The viewer can enjoy the paradox of Siskind's use of the "straight" image of reality that is also fully abstract. Siskind still pays mind to composition; a central density of darkly textured material balanced by smaller dark areas. The delicate lines produced by the cracking of the paint also inform a broader framing at work. However, the artist, like the Abstract Expressionists, also admitted his interest in expressing his own inner drama. The degree of abstraction in Siskind's photographs encourages, and indeed, frees the viewer to determine the nature of that drama.

Chicago 27, 1960

Early, possibly vintage, Gelatin Silver Print

14 1/8 x 18 inches (image size)

16 x 20 inches (paper size)

Signed, titled and dated in pencil on verso.

“First, and emphatically,” he wrote in 1950,

“I accept the flat plane of the picture surface as the primary frame of reference of the picture.” 

Rome 55, 1963

Gelatin Silver Print

20 x 16 inches (paper size)

Signed, titled and dated by Siskind in pencil on verso.

siskind - Rome 55, 1963.png
Siskind - Peru 229, 1977.png

Peru 229, 1977

Gelatin Silver Print

20 x 16 inches (paper size)

Signed, titled and dated by Siskind in pencil on verso.

Siskind - Vera Cruz 96, 1973.png

Siskind remained interested in the formal and abstract qualities of photography. He would become known for his close-up, abstracted views of rocks, peeling paint, graffiti, torn signs, and other objects. He exhibited widely, and in 1982 his photographs were featured in the retrospective, Aaron Siskind: Fifty Years. The exhibit was organized by the Center for Creative Photography, Tucson.

Vera Cruz 96, 1973

Gelatin Silver Print

20 x 16 inches (paper size)

Signed, titled and dated by Siskind in pencil on verso.

Siskind worked worldwide. He photographed in Mexico between the 1950s and 1970s and Italy during the mid-1960s. He had a keen interest in Peru, sparked by Henry Callahan’s account of a trip there in July of 1974. Siskind would become extensively involved with the country’s developing photographic community including a co-op gallery of young Peruvian photographers. It became custom for him to reserve picture-making times for when he could be free from daily routines. With the help of an international network of colleagues, he could spend weeks at a time in strange, inspiring places.

Aaron Siskind continued making photographs until his death from a stroke on February 8, 1991.

siskind - Peru 237, 1977.png

Peru 237, 1977

Gelatin Silver Print

20 x 16 inches (paper size)

Signed, titled and dated by Siskind in pencil on verso.

SISKIND_PeruvianRock_2_toedge.jpg
SISKIND_PeruvianRock_11Replacement_toedge.jpg
SISKIND_PeruvianRock_10_toedge.jpg
SISKIND_PeruvianRock_11_toedge.jpg
SISKIND_PeruvianRock_7_toedge.jpg
SISKIND_PeruvianRock_6_tedege.jpg
SISKIND_PeruvianRock_12_toedge.jpg
SISKIND_PeruvianRock_5_toedge.jpg
SISKIND_PeruvianRock_4_toedge.jpg
SISKIND_PeruvianRock_1_toedge.jpg
SISKIND_PeruvianRock_9_toedge.jpg
SISKIND_PeruvianRock_8_toedge.jpg

Cusco Wall, 1975
Vintage Gelatin Silver Prints, 1975
Group of 12 photographs
Each image measuring approximately 6.75 x 6.75 inches and printed on 10 x 8 sheet
Each signed by photographer in ink on recto below image.

SISKIND_Arequipa94_1979_150.jpg

Arequipa 94, 1979

Gelatin Silver Print

9 13/16 x 9 ¾ inches (image size)

14 x 11 inches (paper size)

Signed, titled, and dated in ink on recto below image.

Aaron Siskind remains the most compelling example of the shift from social documentary photography to abstraction. Through his involvement and interest in the painters of Abstract Expressionism, Siskind turned the entire medium of photography on its head. The camera itself, previously defined by its translation of three-dimensional objects, was now being used to create new two-dimensional ones. One thinks of his influence on the work of Frederick Sommer, for example, who also emphasized flatness and abstraction. Siskind exerted his influence on the photographic world as a founding member of the Society for Photographic Education. He was also one of the founding photographers whose archives established the Center for Creative Photography in 1975. Other CCP founding photographers include Ansel Adams, Wynn Bullock, Harry Callahan, and Frederick Sommer. Undoubtedly, though, his greatest influence was his teaching posts where he influenced generations of young photographers.

The Legacy of Aaron Siskind

Select Collections:

Aaron Siskind Archive, Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ

Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY

International Center for Photography, George Eastman House, Rochester, New York

Carpenter Center and Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA

Art Institute of Chicago

Minneapolis Institute of Art, MN

Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa

Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris

Select Publications:

Bucks County: Photographs of Early Architecture. Horizon, 1974. 

Places: Aaron Siskind Photographs. Siskind and Thomas B. Hess. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1976. 

Harlem Document Photographs 1932 -1940: Aaron Siskind. Matrix, 1981. 

Aaron Siskind: Pleasures and Terrors. Carl Chiarenza. Little Brown and Company, 1982.

Road Trip: Photographs 1980-1988 (Untitled 49). Friends of Photography, 1989.

Aaron Siskind 100. PowerHouse, 2003.

Cover photo by Max YAVNO "Aaron Siskind Photographing at the Old Yuma Jail, 1947"