One might think that black and white photography would have little to do with Abstract Expressionism, a movement characterized by bold colors and sharp lines that developed in New York City during the 1940s and 1950s. After World War II, political instability in Europe brought several European Surrealists to the United States. Surrealists, whose artwork was often outlandish, perplexing, and uncanny, mingled with American artists who had matured during a time of cultural isolation and economic suffering in the United States. Abstract Expressionism was born from the blending of these two groups and resulted in art based on personal experiences, canvases filled with color, abstract forms, and vigorous gestural expressionism. So how does Aaron Siskind, a prominent photographer known for working in black and white, fit into the world of Abstract Expressionism, known for its outlandish and colorful paintings? Well it’s an interesting story.
In 1929, Aaron Siskind was given his first camera as a honeymoon gift. This gift resulted in him becoming involved in the New York Photo League. As a member, Siskind was heavily involved in documenting the social conditions of Depression-Era New York City, hoping to bring about social change by drawing attention to these conditions. Siskind made a name for himself with these photographs, and was soon in charge of the League’s Feature Group, the portion of the organization that created documentary photo essays. Then, in 1941, while on vacation in Martha’s Vineyard, he decided to experiment and snapped a few photographs of the seaweed that had washed up on the beach. These images were the starting point for Siskind. The gestural lines of the seaweed struck something in him and Siskind began to photograph other oftentimes meaningless objects. “Siskind focused on the formal relationship between light, structure and texture, exploring ideas of decay and regeneration. His practice was an overtly straightforward technique of isolating and enlarging everyday subject matter, creating conceptual metaphors with new purpose and meaning” (Bruce Silverstein Gallery, “Aaron Siskind”, 2017). Soon he had a collection of photographs that did not contain a traditional subject and it was with these photographs that Siskind found a home with the Abstract Expressionists.
According to Siskind, “when I make a photograph, I want it to be an altogether new object, complete and self-contained, whose basic condition is order.” These images were definitely different. Siskind radicalized the medium by showing photography’s potential for to create abstract art; this fit perfectly with the gestural lines, abstract forms, and other themes being explored on canvas in New York City by the Abstract Expressionists. His work brought him to the attention of the art elite in New York City and Siskind began to show his work at the Charles Egan Gallery, where he became acquainted with Abstract Expressionist painters such as Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell, Adolph Gottlieb, Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, and Willem de Kooning.
Not only did Siskind revolutionize and radicalize photography, he helped shape the next generation of photographers. He held teaching positions at Black Mountain College, the Art Institute of Design in Chicago and the Rhode Island School of Design, and was a founding member of the Society for Photographic Education, a non-profit membership organization that provides and fosters an understanding of photography as a means of diverse creative expression, cultural insight, and experimental practice. Siskind continues to inspire artists working in photography even after his death. The Aaron Siskind Foundation was established in 1991 to provide cash grants to individual photographic artists through a limited number of Individual Photographer’s Fellowships.
A selection of his work is on display in the exhibition Aaron Siskind located in the Dubois Gallery, Maginnes Hall. This exhibition has been made possible through multiple gifts from Alice and Richard S. Thall ’55 and continues until December 10,2017.