(New York, New York, 1903 - 1991, Providence, Rhode Island)
New York, 1951
1951 (printed mid-late 1960s)
Gelatin silver print
21 1/2 x 17 7/8 in. (54.6 x 45.5 cm)
Collection of the Akron Art Museum
Museum Acquisition Fund
In the 1950s, Siskind was one of the most important American photographers to explore abstraction. This close-up photograph of a rusted metal sign shows that even recognizable images from the real world can appear to be abstractions because of the artist's point of view. Siskind's work recalls the well-known abstract expressionist painters of the period.
New York, 1951, 1951 (printed in mid- or late 1960s)
Collection of the Akron Art Museum
Aaron Siskind, elementary schoolteacher turned photographer and college professor, was an important influence on generations of American photographers, both as exemplar and mentor. His photographic abstractions achieved a deep level of conceptualization while retaining a humanistic concern for meaning. His teaching at the Institute of Design in Chicago from 1951–71 and the Rhode Island School of Design from 1971–76 inspired and informed hundreds of students of the medium.
Siskind began his photographic career as an amateur but very quickly became seriously committed to the documentary mode. He was active in the Film & Photo League in New York throughout the 1930s and founded their Feature Group, which produced several photographic series on life in the city, including Siskind’s own Harlem Document in 1936. The league, which presented an alternative to government-sponsored documentation projects, emphasized stories of individual rather than societal scale and consequence.
In the early 1940s Siskind discovered a means to express his humanist ideas in more abstract images. Photographing the graceful lines of seaweed and isolated bits of flotsam on the beach at Martha’s Vineyard gave him the opportunity to express himself without narrative. In the often-quoted 1945 essay titled “The Drama of Objects,” Siskind wrote about this new kind of personal seeing: “For the first time in my life subject matter had ceased to be of primary importance. Instead, I found myself involved in the relationships of these objects, so much so that these pictures turned out to be deeply moving and personal experiences.”1
Siskind’s consistent project from then until his death was the search for forms that communicated emotion and created a resonant excitement by both reinforcing the picture plane and transforming it. He photographed worn signage, crumbling walls, calligraphic streaks of tar—even lava formations. Sometimes language fragments communicated meaning; more often tonal contrasts and compositional rhythms expressed an idea or emotion. During the 1940s and 1950s Siskind was the only photographer affiliated with the community of Abstract Expressionist painters, which included Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, and Franz Kline, and the only photographer to exhibit with them.
Siskind’s photography paralleled their painting in its emotive intensity and discovery of primitive forms in gestural marks. His marks, of course, were framed by the camera and excerpted from the world of real things, but his powerful, animated compositions and the encrusted surfaces of his subjects were as compelling as those created in paint. In New York, 1951, made early in that year, Siskind focused closely on a section of rusted metal sign, capturing not only the decay in the aging enamel surface but also the strange calligraphy of the rusted parts. An important work for Siskind, the image served as the cover to the brochure accompanying his one-person exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1956 and has been published many times since.
Throughout his life Siskind experimented with the formal conventions found in New York. He characteristically eschewed any sense of location or space and usually kept his lens parallel and close to the surface or object he was photographing. His use of a large-format camera insured accurate rendering of a full range of black to white tones. All pictorial activity was contained and energized by the framing edge, creating a strong sense of picture plane. He believed that the combination of material subject and his own private intention created a rich ambiguity that activated the image. For almost fifty years Siskind worked to promote the idea of personal vision in photography and photographic abstraction as compelling art making.
- Sheryl Conkelton, 2001
1. Aaron Siskind, “The Drama of Objects,” first published in Minicam Photography 8 (June 1945); quoted in Kao and Meyer, 51.
Chiarenza, Carl. Aaron Siskind, Pleasures and Terrors. Boston and Tucson: New York Graphic Society/Little, Brown in association with the Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona, 1982.
Kao, Deborah Martin, and Charles A. Meyer, eds. Aaron Siskind: Toward a Personal Vision, 1935–1955. Boston: Boston College Museum of Art, 1994.
Torosian, Michael, ed. The Siskind Variations: A Quartet of Photographs and Contemplations. Toronto: Lumiere, 1990.
Black and White