Aaron Siskind was one of America’s finest photographers. Beatrice Colin discovers his work in a stunning retrospective at Stills Gallery.
‘There was in rne the desire to see the world clean and fresh and alive as primitive things are cl ‘an and fresh and alive.‘ wrote Aaron Siskind in I944. So he photographed shadows falling on walls. rust. flaking paint. grafﬁti and strings of seaweed on sand. capturing the abstract shapes and gestural forms of his environment.
Siskind‘s approach now appears to contain the echo ofcountless others such as Rothko. Pollock and Tapias. who worked at the satne time or after. yet it stands firm in its own right. A retrospective show at Edinburgh‘s Stills Gallery includes prints from collections worldwide which brought together for the lirst time in Europe to chart the career of a fascinating and inﬂuential artist.
The life of Aaron Siskind reads like a John Irving novel — he developed from a small. eccentric but street-sussed child brought up in New York‘s overcrowded Lower East Side into a cultured artist who hung out with Franz. Kline. de Cooning and other abstract expressionist painters. His story is characterised by consumption of booze. women and an urge to express himself artistically. Before he discovered photography. he tried to convey his ideas through poetry. music. social reform and even sex. but failed to convince himself he was good at any of them. It was only when he received a camera as a wedding present in I930 that he started taking pictures.
In this show. his career appears to fall neatly into three periods. Studies from his Harlem [)m'umem series shot between l936— l 940 reveal a young photographer venturing into the inner city to document the appalling effects of the Depression on the black community. Children sit on milk crates in dingy kitchens under naked bulbs. couples dance as if trying to forget and men lie fully clothed on crumpled beds while pin-ups of movie stars smile from the walls. Siskind captures something of these people‘s immense dignity with a sensitive eye. and rather than using heart-rending voyeurism. records the detail and stark juxtaposition of objects which tell the bitter truth.
Before Siskind discovered photography, he tried to convey his ideas through poetry, music, social reform and even sex, but tailed to convince himself he was good at any of them.
Yet in these pictures Siskind is detached. He never took straightforward portraits and his stance was as an observer who could isolate a pose or capture an unself—conscious gesture. In 1940 he began to become dissatisfied with documentary photography
and art as a means of social reform. Instead he started to search for a way of transforming the physical world and charging it with a personal and metaphorical intent. He began photographing houses and empty buildings which displayed For Sale and To Rent signs and became interested in crumbling architectural detail and the way sunlight and shadow fell on the walls.
‘The worship of the object. per se.‘ he wrote in Minicam Photography in I945. ‘in our best nature photography. is not enough to satisfy the man of today. compounded as he is ofChrist. Freud and Marx. The interior drama is the meaning of the exterior event. and each man is an essence and a symbol.‘
Subject matter ceased to be of prime importance and he became attracted to organic shapes. the way they interacted. and to fragments ofcivilisation. His large. abstract photographs revealed emotional tension which linked mart with history. In one piece. Aquarium ()8 ([946) the letter R lies on its side with the top chopped off. This suggests the architectural forms of the building are slowly starting to appear organic as they are eaten away by the time. Filled with drama and the calligraphy ofdecay. Siskind's work veered towards the current art scene and away from the photography movement.
Eventually. Charles Egan. a gallery owner who exhibited the work of the abstract expressionists. saw his work. He quickly came to regard Siskind as an artist who happened to use a camera and offered him a show in 1948.
Never as commercially successful as his painter friends. Siskind nevertheless gave up his job and
Terrors and pleasures of Levitation 99 by Aaron Siskind
devoted himselro his work full-time. His two- dimensional studies of wall surfaces. graffiti and impotent signs became bolder and more powerful. Works such as (Via-ago (I 948) frames :1 signpost riddled with bullet holes. The metal is rusty and has been caked with dtrst. resulting in a picture which has all the violence and energy of a Pollock painting.
Siskind’s work is a real discovery. Fresh, honest and as bizarre as you’d expect from a man who was said to drive at five miles per hour when the mood took him.
By the 50s he had distilled his philosophy towards t making pictures. He believed in the importance of tension between ‘the outside world and an inside world'. In 195-1 he created a series called Pleasures and 'I'errnrs arm-1mm»; in which he returned to the human figure. Captured in mid leap. dive or fall. figures are reduced to dynamic shapes against a r white background. Rendered as abstract forms. they have an energy. exhilaration and anxiety conveying both isolation and empathy.
Siskind‘s work is a real discovery. Fresh. honest and as bizarre as you‘d expect from a man who was said to drive at live miles per hour when the mood took him. the work was intended to be deeply pleasurable while trying to place man's existence in reality. In common with the way he claimed to experience music. it is ‘isolation you cart stand.‘
Aaron Siskind: lx’elras'per'lrve / 932—/ 975' is at Sir/ls (ia/lerv. Edinburgh rural 2521a)! I995.
The List l6 December l994—l2 January I995 71