What can reading a biography of Aaron Siskind do for me? – a 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 tells about the use of light, Man Ray shows how to be a photographer without owning a camera, and Aaron Siskind lets us know that for inspiration we do not have to confine ourselves to fellow photographers.
But let's begin closer to the beginning. Siskind (1903-1991) originally wanted to be a writer and in college had been interested in literature, especially poetry. Like many would-be writers, he ended up as an English teacher. He taught elementary and junior high school, mainly in New York City, from 1926 until 1949.
Fate stuck the would-be writer in the form of a present when he got married. I was given a small camera as a wedding gift from a very dear friend. a discovery for me. "
Goodbye writer, hello photographer. Siskind joined the Film and Photo League, a cultural organization of the Communist Party. Like many artists in the depression of the 1930s, he was moved to help the poor and neglected. For about a decade he worked as a documentary photographer. Among his creations were Dead End: The Bowery and Harlem Document (1932-40). In the early 1940s Siskind made a radical departure from documentation. He started to produce abstract work.
At that time, the school of painting known as Abstract Expressionism was just getting started. As it was centered in New York City, Abstract Expressionism was also called The New York School.
Siskind was in on the ground floor. Many of the Abstract Expressionist painters were his friends.
Abstract Expressionism was a radical departure from traditional painting for many reasons. For one thing, the subject matter was not important. Actually, there was no identifiable subject matter. To many of the movement's painters this was a way to free themselves from "the impediments of memory, association, nostalgia, legend, and myth that have been the devices of Western European painting." (Barnett Newman)
The absence of traditional subject matter was only the beginning. Not only was Abstract Expressionism non-geometric,
there was, in some cases, a departure from traditional method. Jackson Pollack beloved and stripped thinned paint onto raw canvas laid on the ground.
Finally, there was even a de-emphasis on the finished product. To an Abstract Expressionist the act of creating the painting was more important than the finished product.
They also shared a common philosophy. They bought to express their subconscious. They were interested in Jung's ideas about myth, ritual, and racial memory.
Although they shared a philosophy, they did not share a technique. There were two main branches of Abstract Expressionist paintings. Color Field, who chief practitioners were Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, and Clyfford Still,
and Gestural, which was produced by artists such as Jackson Pollock, Willem De Kooning, Hans Hofmann, Franz Kline, and Robert Motherwell.
Siskind was a friend of De Kooning, Kline, and Motherwell.
From the time he became interested in Abstract Expressionism, Siskind never looked back. His photographs eliminated the illusion of three-dimensional space. He produced abstract images of common flat, non-geometric objects that had been ignored by conventional photographers. His subject matter included peeling paint, drips of tar, graffiti, seaweed, torn posters, old doorways, and "found art," all sorts of discarded objects that he encountered on his walks.
"When I make a photograph I want it to be an identical new object, complete and self-contained, which basic condition is order – unlike the world of events and actions which permanent condition 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. The first is that, as a photographer, you have to find a style that is consistent with who you are. Remember that Aaron Siskind's initial goal was to become a writer. He had a taste for poetry. His temperament sees, from the beginning, to have been more consistent with Abstract Expressionism than with documentary photography. And, after a decade of taking pictures, Siskind found the style that would make him famous.
The second message is that you do not have to limit your search for ideas and inspiration to photographs or photographers.