This exhibition celebrates the 100th anniversary of the birth of Aaron Siskind, one of the most acclaimed photographers of the 20th century. While institutions across the country honor his achievements this year, RISD’s Museum has special reason to commemorate him. In addition to his influential role as an artist, Siskind (American, 1903-91) was also a dedicated professor at RISD (1971-76). After his retirement, he established the Aaron Siskind Center for Photography here at the Museum. His desire was to allow access for students and visitors wishing to study the collection, to which Siskind was a generous donor.
The Museum’s rich holdings of Siskind’s work from the 1940s are highlighted by the current exhibition and augmented with generous loans from public and private collections. During this fascinating decade, Siskind shifted from documentary photography to the personal, metaphorical images for which he is best known. Siskind and many other American artists found that the events of World War II (1939-45) required a profound rethinking of their work, an inward turning. The title of the show, Interior Drama, is taken from a 1945 article that Siskind wrote for Minicam Photography: “The interior drama is the meaning of the exterior event.” It also suggests Siskind’s private struggle to find his own voice in photography distinct from the dominant trend of documentary work.
Later, in a 1963 interview with photographer Jaromir Stephany, Siskind stated:
In working in a documentary style I was always trying to search and find out what kind of meaning you could get in a picture of that kind, you see. I was beginning to feel that I wasn’t getting…anything really personal, anything really powerful, really special, you know. And also, in examining it I find that I wasn’t made for it really. Because my documentary pictures are very quiet and very formal.
Aaron Siskind, Credo, 1950 (first published in Photo Arts, vol. 1, no. 4, May 1951, p. 45)
When I make a photograph I want it to be an altogether new object, complete and self-contained, whose basic condition is order…unlike the world of events and actions whose permanent condition is change and disorder…First, and emphatically, I accept the flat plane of the picture surface as the primary frame of reference of the picture…but the object serves only a personal need and the requirements of the picture. Thus, rocks are sculptured forms; a section of common decorative ironwork, springing rhythmic shapes; fragments of paper sticking to a wall, a conversation piece. And these forms…take their place in the final field of the picture…disassociated from…customary neighbors and forced into new relationships. What is the subject matter of this apparently very personal world? It has been suggested that these shapes and images are underworld characters, the inhabitants of that vast common realm of memories that have gone down below the level of conscious control. It may be they are. The degree of emotional involvement and the amount of free association with the material being photographed would point in that direction. However…what I am conscious of and what I feel is the picture I am making, the relation of that picture to others I have made and, more generally, its relation to others I have experienced.