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How can reading Aaron Siskind’s biography help me? – fair question. Reading about almost any great photographer can help answer two questions (at least): what should I photograph and how should I photograph it. Frederick Evans talks about the use of light, Man Ray shows how to be a photographer without a camera, and Aaron Siskind lets us know that we don’t have to be limited to our fellow photographers for inspiration.
But let’s start closer to the beginning. Siskind (1903-1991) originally wanted to be a writer and in college became interested in literature, especially poetry. Like many future writers, he became an English teacher. He taught elementary and junior high school, mostly in New York, from 1926 to 1949.
Fate gave the future writer a gift when he got married. “I received a small camera as a wedding present from a very dear friend. My first pictures were taken during my honeymoon. As soon as I was introduced to the camera, I was intrigued by the possibilities of expression it offered. It was like an opening for me.”
Goodbye writer, hello photographer. Siskind joined the Film and Photo League, the Communist Party’s cultural organization. Like many artists during the Depression of the 1930s, he was driven to help the poor and disadvantaged. He worked as a documentary photographer for about ten years. Among his writings was Dead End: The Bowery and Harlem Document (1932-40). In the early 1940s, Siskind made a radical departure from documentation. He began to create abstract works.
At that time, the school of painting known as abstract expressionism was just beginning. Because Abstract Expressionism was centered in New York, it was also called the New York School.
Siskind was on the first floor. Many abstract expressionist artists were his friends.
Abstract Expressionism was a radical departure from traditional painting for many reasons. On the one hand, the topic was not important. In fact, there was no identifiable object. For many artists of this movement, it was a way to free themselves from “obstacles of memory, associations, nostalgia, legends and myths that were the means of Western European painting.” (Barnett Newman)
The lack of traditional subject matter was only the beginning. Not only was abstract expressionism non-geometric,
in some cases, a departure from the traditional method was observed. Jackson Pollack poured and dripped thinned paint onto a raw canvas laid on the ground.
Eventually, there was even a de-emphasis on the finished product. For an abstract expressionist, the act of creating a painting was more important than the finished product.
They also had a common philosophy. They sought to express their subconscious. They were interested in Jung’s ideas about myth, ritual, and racial memory.
Although they shared a common philosophy, they did not share a common technique. There were two main branches of abstract expressionism painting. Color Field, whose main practitioners were Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman and Clifford Still,
and Gestural, created by artists such as Jackson Pollock, Willem De Kooning, Hans Hoffmann, Franz Kline and Robert Motherwell.
Siskind was a friend of De Kooning, Kline and Motherwell.
Since becoming interested in Abstract Expressionism, Siskind has never looked back. His photographs got rid of the illusion of three-dimensional space. He created abstract images of ordinary flat non-geometric objects that were ignored by ordinary photographers. His objects included peeling paint, drops of tar, graffiti, algae, torn posters, old doors, and “found art,” all kinds of discarded items he came across on his walks.
“When I take a photograph, I want it to be a completely new object, complete and self-sufficient, whose basic condition is order – unlike the world of events and actions, whose constant state is change and disorder.”
In 1951, Siskind began teaching at the Chicago Institute of Design, where he remained until 1971. He finished his teaching career at the Rhode Island School of Design (1971-76).
And what is the moral of this story? There are two. First, as a photographer, you need to find a style that aligns with who you are. Remember that Aaron Siskind’s original goal was to become a writer. He had a taste for poetry. From the beginning, his temperament seems to have been more suited to abstract expressionism than to documentary photography. And after ten years of photography, Siskind found the style that would make him famous.
The second message is that you don’t have to limit your search for ideas and inspiration to photos or photographers.
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