Aaron Siskind American, 1903-1991
Born in New York City, Aaron Siskind inspired many photographers through the example of his own work and his instruction at the Institute of Design, Illinois Institute of Technology, and at the Rhode Island School of Design. Graduating from City College of New York in 1926, Siskind taught English in the city's public schools for 23 years. He took up photography as a hobby in 1930 and two years later learned to process and print his own images. Around this time he joined the Photo League, an organization of socially concerned photographers who promoted documentary photography. Siskind headed the league's project focusing on Harlem (Harlem Document) and also produced his own series Tabernacle City, Bucks County and The Most Crowded Block in the World.
In the early 1940s, Siskind's work gradually shifted from a social documentary approach to a more abstract and personal style. During summers on Martha's Vineyard and in Gloucester, Massachusetts, he began photographing natural objects close up, eliminating deep, naturalistic space and concentrating on the primacy of the flat, two-dimensional surface of the photograph. As a result of his experiments, he came to be interested in the photograph as a physical object in its own right, rather than as a reflection of the outside world.
In 1947 Siskind exhibited his new work at the Egan Gallery in New York, where the paintings of the abstract expressionists were shown. He became friends with painter Franz Kline and other members of his circle and through their support published his first book, Aaron Siskind: Photographs (1959). In the 1950s Siskind also began to establish himself as a photography teacher. He gained his first experience as a part-time instructor at Trenton College (1949-51), then taught during the summer of 1951 at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. There he worked with Harry Callahan, who invited him to join the staff of the Institute of Design in Chicago. Siskind taught at the institute from 1951-71, when he left to join the Rhode Island School of Design where Callahan now headed the department of photography. Siskind continued to teach at the school until his retirement in 1976.
Over the years Siskind remained interested in exploring the formal and abstract qualities of photography, becoming known for his closeup, abstracted views of rocks, peeling paint, bits of graffiti, torn signs, and other objects. He exhibited widely, and in 1982 his photographs were featured in a major retrospective, Aaron Siskind: Fifty Years, organized by the Center for Creative Photography, Tucson. M.M.