Peer through the peculiar lens of photographer Aaron Siskind | Art Review | Chicago Reader

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Peer through the peculiar lens of photographer Aaron Siskind

The major figure in American photography gets his first retrospective in book form.


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When Aaron Siskind arrived in Chicago in 1951 to teach photography at the Institute of Design (formerly the New Bauhaus), he was in the midst of a creative metamorphosis. During the 1930s he had been a member of the Workers Film and Photo League in New York and took documentary photographs, mostly of daily life in Harlem. In the mid-40s, though, he spent a summer in Gloucester, Massachusetts, and his subject matter took a turn from concrete pictures of people to sometimes abstract images of objects.

"The objects are rendered sharp, fully textured, and undistorted," he wrote in "The Drama of Objects," an essay published in Minicam Photography in June 1945. "But the potent fact is not any particular object; but rather that the meaning of these objects exists only in their relationship with other objects, or in their isolation."

But Siskind didn't abandon his documentary roots completely. Upon his arrival in Chicago, he assembled a group of students to help him photograph 60 Louis Sullivan buildings that were either on the verge of collapse or slated for demolition. As photo historian Gilles Mora notes in Aaron Siskind: Another Photographic Reality, a handsome new volume from the University of Texas Press that's the first retrospective in book form of Siskind's long career, the photos themselves were the first collection to "[provide] a coherent all-round view of a single architect." When Siskind designed the final exhibition, though, "he made creative play with the connections between formats, images, and juxtapositions."

The book reproduces some of those connections and juxtapositions: the decorative upright on a wrought-iron banister duplicates the curlicues on a frieze, and the textured brickwork on a warehouse building echoes the molding on the side of a truck trailer.

Siskind was a popular teacher at ID; he taught, among many others, Kenneth Josephson, Art Sinsabaugh, and Ray K. Metzker. "There were legions of younger people, like myself, who adored him," one of his former students, Charles Traub, writes in the book's introductory essay, "and who accompanied him shooting, eating, and socializing."

After he retired from ID and left Chicago in 1971, Siskind spent many years traveling and studying forms in nature, instead of just in cities. He created a series of photos that paid homage to the work of his friend, the abstract expressionist painter Franz Kline. His work became more widely accepted and even imitated. But strangely, he never considered himself an experimental photographer. "I was not interested in experiments," he wrote in 1983. "I never experimented in my life. To me, whatever I did seemed like natural growth—from myself and from my knowledge of art." Another Photographic Reality moves from a 1935 shot of joyous couple jitterbugging at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem to a series of stark shots of a hole-ridden wall in Morocco in 1982: the evolution of an artist and his vision.

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