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Aaron Siskind

(1903—1991)


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(1903–91).

Photographer. His bold, graphic, nearly abstract images from the 1940s and 1950s rank as the most important photographic equivalents of abstract expressionism. Although he remained committed to the basic processes of straight black-and-white photography, in these works emphasizing archetypal representation, self-sufficient imagery, flattened perspective, and ambiguous meanings, he entered into an artistic dialogue with avant-garde painting. A New York native, Siskind studied literature at City College of New York. Following graduation in 1926, he taught English in local public schools until 1947. Concurrently he probed social realities as a documentary photographer, notably in Harlem, from about 1930 through the early 1940s. With time, however, he came to believe that the full truth of his subjects could not be communicated objectively. With this in mind, in Gloucester, Massachusetts, during the summer of 1944, he consciously set out to retrain his eye. By focusing on mundane subjects and emphasizing nongeometric formal elements, he transferred meaning from the subject to the photograph as a work of art. After this time, he infrequently photographed people, but often chose subjects that disclose human activity and sometimes comment indirectly on issues related to communication. His themes included stone walls, peeling paint, corroded statues, and weather-beaten billboards, reconceived as forceful abstract compositions. Usually seen at close range, their constituent elements, pried loose from original meanings, suggest emotional and psychological relationships. By the late 1940s, Siskind had become acquainted with abstract expressionist leaders, including Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko. In 1951 he ranked as the sole photographer to participate in the group's landmark “Ninth Street Show.” “Martha's Vineyard 124” (1954), an arrangement of gritty megaliths, recalls the structural tensions, dramatic scale, and brooding heroism of paintings by his friend Franz Kline. Other works suggest the all-over compositions and spontaneous effects of work by Jackson Pollock. In 1951 Siskind began teaching at Chicago's Institute of Design (now part of Illinois Institute of Technology), where he soon numbered among the nation's leading photography instructors. When Harry Callahan left in 1961, Siskind replaced him, heading the photography department until 1970. He then followed Callahan to Providence, where he taught until 1976 at the Rhode Island School of Design and remained in retirement. He died there. Collections of his photographs include Aaron Siskind: Photographs (1959) and Places: Aaron Siskind Photographs (1976). His will established the Aaron Siskind Foundation, which awards grants to individual photographers.

Subjects: Art.


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