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Aaron Siskind (American, 1903-1991)


Birth Place: New York City (New York state, United States)

Aaron Siskind (1903 - 1991) was an American photographer whose work pushed toward the edges of the avant-garde. This often placed him front and center for multiple American photographic movements -- from his early documentary photography with the Photo League to his later more personal work in the abstract expressionist movement. Aaron Siskind’s career isn’t easily defined to one school of thought.

Siskind grew up in New York City, graduating from City College and becoming an English teacher. It was during this time that he received a camera as a wedding present and started taking amateur photographs. In the 1930s he began to take his work more seriously, joining the Film and Photo League in 1933. This was a co-op of photographers dedicated to improving social causes and Siskind’s involvement led to some of his best-known work.

It was during this time that Aaron Siskind shot the Harlem Document (1937-1940), an iconic visual record of Harlem during the Great Depression. These photographs are instantly recognizable as Siskind’s, with his trademark flat style and great attention to detail already firmly an aesthetic choice. These photographs would mark Siskind’s first great artistic success, but would also be the end of his time with the Film and Photo League -- a falling out would lead to his exit from the group in 1941.

During this time of conflict, Aaron Siskind produced Tabernacle City (1936-1941) which was hailed as more interesting than other traditional documentary photographs of the time, reframing the rural architecture of Pennsylvania by removing pictorial space and concentrating on extremely close details like cracked, peeling paint. His photographs were gritty, often with dirt and grime smudged and smeared directly onto the surfaces of his negatives and prints.

This was the start of the more introspective and interesting work that would define the second half of Siskind’s artistic career. His abstract photographs were championed by painters like Mark Rothko, Franz Kline, and Willem de Kooning, firmly establishing him as one of America’s premier abstract expressionists during the 1950s. He would go on to found the Society of Photographic Education and become a co-editor of Choice, a literary and photography magazine.

It was as an educator that Siskind would have his biggest impact. He became a professor of photography at the Institute of Design in Chicago in 1951, a position he held until the 1970s when he joined the faculty at the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design. During this time he continued to photograph, winning a Guggenheim Fellowship and having his work exhibited at notable museums and galleries across the country.

Siskind died in 1991 from a stroke. He left behind a legacy of avant-garde work that continues to inspire and serve as a definable link between mid-century documentary photography and those later abstract expressionists. A Siskind photograph is instantly recognizable, even when its subject doesn’t immediately reveal itself, an artistic triumph that serves as a testament to the eye and aesthetics of a true American original.

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