This exhibition, drawn entirely from the Museum’s collection, complements Interior Drama: Aaron Siskind’s Photographs of the 1940s, opening November 14. Both exhibitions celebrate the centenary of the birth of Aaron Siskind (American, 1903-91), one of the most influential photographers of the 20th century. During the 1940s, Siskind made a radical move away from documentary photography toward the personal, metaphorical approach seen in the works on display here.
Siskind’s early training in literature and piano led him to see in photography the ambiguity, layered meaning, and terseness of poetry and a structure inspired by music. In his photographs of the 1940s, he discovered that he could transform subject matter by isolating and framing images from the exterior world to give him fresh and expanded meaning. The flat, rectangular space of the photograph became the arena for an “interior drama.”
Architecture was one of Siskind’s earliest subjects, and it always remained important to his work. Urban walls, in particular, appealed to him because aging surfaces—peeled, stained and scrawled—conjure visions of other lives. Rock was also rich subject matter, for Siskind and the graphically powerful photographs of rock walls in Martha’s Vineyard exhibited here show how he used that imagery metaphorically to suggest tensions and relationships.
Shot in Chicago “The Pleasures and Terrors of Levitation” series captures the bodies of casual divers hurtling through space and uses them to reflect psychological states. Although people were infrequent subjects, they were always at the heart of Siskind’s work. He strove to connect with people, whether by photographing evidence of human handwork, by creating compositions suggestive of social interaction, or simply by eliciting emotional responses to his art.
During the period covered by this exhibition, Siskind taught photography at the Institute of Design, Chicago, from 1951 to 1971, and at Rhode Island School of Design from 1971 to 1976. After he retired from teaching, Siskind remained in Providence and continued making photographs until his death in 1991.