Aaron Siskind was a teacher, editor and photographer, who was best known for his innovations in abstract photography. He studied literature and enjoyed poetry and music as a child. He showed all traits of growing up to be a writer. But it was the accidental landing of a camera in his hand when he had his first stint at photography. He started off as a social documentary photographer producing series such as Harlem Documentary, a survey of life in Harlem. He drew inspiration from anything abstract such as road surfaces, peeling plaster, road signs and graffiti. His work consisted of close-up details of asphalt pavement, rocks, lava flows and painted walls. Another strikingly notable feature of his photography was that he focussed on flat shapes rather than on objects with the pictorial illusion of possessing three dimensions. He was the first photographer to combine real world and abstraction. His photographs & images reflected the influence of abstract-expressionist painters of that period which included Kline, Motherwell, and de Kooning. As his love for photography grew, he was cut off from the social and political world. He began to derive more joy from inanimate forms he observed around him. Hence, anything abstract became his muse. To learn more interesting facts about him, read on.
Childhood & Early Life
Aaron Siskind was born in New York and grew up in Lower East Side. He was born to a Russian Jewish immigrant. He was the fifth child and had five siblings.
He graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School and earned his Bachelor of Social Science degree in Literature from the College of the City of New York in 1926.
He was inclined to music and poetry during his formative years. It was but natural for him to grow up to be a Lecturer. Throughout his childhood, he probably had not seen even the face of a camera.
Immediately after graduating, he taught English in New York City Public School for 21 years, from 1926 to 1947.
It was in 1929, by accident that he realized his love for photography when he was given a camera as a wedding gift. With this new found hobby, Siskind, explored his camera and went click-berserk & became an enthusiastic member of the New York Photo League.
He mostly captured anything that passed by him. His camera caught the most mundane things such as foot prints in sand, coiled ropes, walls that were on the verge of breaking down, any decaying form and the like.
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Aaron Siskind began his career in photography as a member of the Photo League in the 1930s. He started off as a Documentary Photographer and produced many documentaries including Harlem Document.
In 1940s, while he was in Martha's Vineyard, his started taking pictures which lay importance to textures, shapes and abstract form. Unlike any conventional photographer, he captured the very ordinary things. However, he brought out the extra-ordinary from the ordinary.
During the period 1943-1944, he combined abstract with real life and created interesting photographs from discarded and found objects on Martha’s Vineyard and in Gloucester, Massachusetts.
From 1947-1949, he taught photography at Trenton Junior College, Trenton, New Jersey. Here, he passed on his students the talent of shooting the most trivial of things yet getting the best out of them.
In 1950, Sisikind was persuaded by Harry Callahan his colleague, to join him as a part of the faculty of the IIT Institute of Design in Chicago.
During 1951-1971, Siskind was a part of Illinois Institute of Technology Institute of Design in Chicago. He had the opportunity of closely working with Harry Callahan during his stay at Chicago.
Between 1960 and 1970, he served as a co-editor of Choice Magazine.
In 1971, like Callahan he decided to teach the rest of his life at the Rhode Island School of Design.
In 1973, he served as a Lecturer in Photography at the Carpenter Centre of Harvard University.
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In 1950, he wrote ‘Credo” as an artist’s statement for the symposium, ‘What is Modern Photography?’
In 1959, Horizon Press published his first book, ‘Aaron Siskind: Photographs’
In 1965, George Eastman House published his second book, ‘Aaron Siskind: Photographer’
Awards & Achievements
In 1966, he became the recipient of John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship for Creative Arts –Photography.
In 1969, he was named Bingham Distinguished Professor in Humanities at the University of Louisville.
Received the Philadelphia College of Art Gold Star of Merit Award and the Rhode Island Governor’s Prize for the Arts.
In 1971, he was awarded the degree of Honorary Doctor of Arts from Columbia College in Chicago
In 1976, he received the National Endowment for the Arts Grant for Visual Arts in Photography.
Personal Life & Legacy
Siskind is sometimes referred to as the ‘Father of Modern Photography’ as he in his own way re-invented photography by giving it a touch that no one had given it before. People who have developed a liking towards Siskind’s work regard other photography as predictable and boring.
It is believed that Siskind died of a stroke at his home in Providence, at the age of 87. He was survived by a daughter, two sisters and two grandchildren.
Aaron Siskind was known to have developed an interest in photography when he received his first camera as a going-away present before his honeymoon trip to Bermuda. It is believed that he clicked pictures the whole time during his honeymoon.