Thursday, February 26, 2015

Aaron Siskind: Another Photographic Reality by Gilles Mora

My review of Aaron Siskind: Another Photographic Reality by Giles Mora (University of Texas Press, 2014) is now available on photo-eye. You can get the book here.

As both an artist and educator, Aaron Siskind (1903-1991) has influenced countless photographers and played a central role in defining the medium in the late 20th century. Given the recent vogue for photographic abstraction, the need to understand the work of Siskind has become all the more important. Aaron Siskind: Another Photographic Reality charts the evolving nature of the artist, demonstrating the fluidity with which he moved between different styles and how, even at his most abstract, he remained firmly rooted in the world and its visual pleasures.

All images © Aaron Siskind/Aaron Siskind Foundation and University of Texas Press

Divided into four major sections, the book includes over 150 photos that span Siskind’s working life. It begins appropriately with Siskind’s work with the New York Photo League in the early to mid-30s, which he quit and later rejoined in 1936 to help form the Feature Group. A smaller group within the Photo League, the Feature Group was responsible for the Harlem Document, a collaborative project involving several photographers who sought to document the social, economic, and cultural reality of Harlem. Resembling much socially concerned documentary work of the time, Siskind’s images include cityscapes, portraits, interiors, as well as scenes from Harlem’s vibrant nightlife. Although Siskind moved towards more abstract work shortly after the completion of the Harlem Document, he worked on a similarly collaborative project with his students from the Institute of Design in the early 50s. The ‘Louis Sullivan project’ (1952-54) documented many of the architect’s remaining buildings in Chicago. Like the Harlem Document, the emphasis was less on individual authorship than on creating a dynamic archive that preserved an important aspect of the city.

All images © Aaron Siskind/Aaron Siskind Foundation and University of Texas Press
All images © Aaron Siskind/Aaron Siskind Foundation and University of Texas Press

During the mid-to-late 40s, Siskind began to produce some of his most iconic abstract images and move away from his social-documentary practice. Siskind continued to go out into the world to make pictures, but was beginning to develop his own abstracted visual language — marks on walls, peeling painted, cropped and disjointed signs, close-ups of rocks, and gestural reeds of grass. Never entirely abstract, Siskind’s work explored the way the camera could transform mundane surfaces, marks, and juxtapositions into poetry of light, form, and surface. While his work often sought inspiration in the natural world, he found delight in the textured, graphic surface of the modern city. Signs appear regularly, but are always illegible. Reduced to line and form, the marks and abstracted signs resemble the letters of an alien alphabet, spliced and reshuffled, or cut off. At times visually disorienting, Siskind’s images never confuse or confound, or dissolve into indecipherable abstractions. As the book makes clear, Siskind continued to shoot more legible subject matter like nudes, balletic divers, landscapes, and architectural images throughout his life, moving fluidly between what might be seen as diametrically opposed styles.

It was also during this formative period in New York City that Siskind befriended numerous Abstract Expressionists. One close friend was Franz Kline, who was later celebrated in Siskind’s series, Homage to Franz Kline (1972-74), a suite of images that depicted walls with gestural marks from around the world. While it might be assumed that Siskind was aping the Abstract Expressionists, this is an unfair and untrue assessment. At a time when photography was still struggling for legitimacy as an art form, and often ghettoized when it was given any recognition, Siskind was learning from and influencing some of the most acclaimed artists of the time. If anything, this close relationship highlights the absurdity of rigid curatorial or art historical boundaries, and points to the way artists communicate, learn from, and influence each other across mediums.

All images © Aaron Siskind/Aaron Siskind Foundation and University of Texas Press

In addition to his acclaim as an artist, Siskind was an equally influential teacher; I would argue his teaching should be recognized as a vital aspect of his legacy. Hired to teach at the Institute of Design in Chicago by Harry Callahan in the early-50s, Siskind went on to mentor countless students, including Ray K. Metzker, Barbara Crane, Charles H. Traub, Kenneth Josephson, as well as many others, who in turn went on to influence and teach more and more photographers at the increasing number of photography programs around the United States.[1] Siskind remained at the Institute of Design for twenty-years, leaving in 1971 and joining his by now close friend Harry Callahan at the Rhode Island School of Design.

Aaron Siskind: Another Photographic Reality is well designed and nicely printed. While a few of the very early images appear a bit washed out or murky, this is easily overlooked by the fact we’re given such a broad and comprehensive view of Siskind’s work. Sadly, the accompanying show at the Pavillon Populaire in Montpellier, France, which opened this fall, does not appear to have plans to travel to the US at this time. Hopefully, this will change. For now, we have this great book, which fills a long neglected void. It also reminds us of the visionary importance of Siskind not only for his time, but also our own.

Please note: This review originally appeared on photo-eye on February 25th, 2015.