A Painter's Photographer

Celebrate the centenary of Aaron Siskind, the first Abstract Expressionist lensman.

In 1951, when Aaron Siskind was to show his photographs at a New York gallery, no less a personage than the painter Elaine De Kooning wrote the exhibition essay.

Siskind, she wrote, was a "painter's photographer. ... A large part of his public is composed of artists ... (and) his work is much more related to contemporary styles of painting than to those of photography."

She was right. Other photographers of the day prized social documentary above all else; through the Depression and World War II, they were making serious examinations of poverty, war and labor in black and white. But after undergoing a conversion experience in 1940 at Martha's Vineyard, documentary photographer Siskind went over to the other side, to the dismay of serious-minded social reformers. He cast his lot with his new buddies, the Abstract Expressionist painters, and began making photographs that endowed abstracted objects with emotional and even symbolic weight.

A lavish centenary show at the Center for Creative Photography, The Drama of Pictures, demonstrates how he turned his camera on the calligraphy of seaweed ("Seaweed 2," 1947), on the weighty relationships between rocks ("Martha's Vineyard 108 B," 1954), on graffiti scrawled on city walls from Chicago to Cusco. Out of this humble detritus, he made something large and glorious and painterly. Most famously, his lovely pictures of overlapping letters on crumbling walls in Mexico and Peru evoke the black-and-white paintings of his good friend, the late painter Franz Kline. You might say Siskind was the first Abstract Expressionist photographer.

His pictures were not pure abstractions--it's hard for photographers to abandon the real world completely--but he focused in on his subjects so closely that they lost their original identities and morphed into luminous abstractions. In small-town Arizona in 1941, for instance, Siskind found an ordinary painted plank, its dried-out pigments flaking off in the Southwest sun. This piece of junk became "Jerome, Arizona," a beautiful collage of shapes and shadows, in a delicious array of tones, from white to charcoal to black. You'd hardly recognize it as a slab of old wood.

The 100th anniversary of Siskind's birth is being celebrated in at least five other shows around the country. The local exhibition, gleaned entirely from the center's own substantial Siskind archive, is a treasury of some 118 pictures dating from a tiny 1931 picture of New York City skyscrapers to 1980s' Hawaiian lava photos. The center has also contributed interesting archival materials--such as Elaine de Kooning's original typewritten essay--and a videotape of a jovial 80-year-old Siskind reminiscing as much about great food as about great art. (He died at 87 in 1991.)

This important show had to be entrusted to a guest curator; the University of Arizona's scandalous mismanagement of the internationally known center has left it without a curator for almost a year and without a director for almost three years. Sheryl Conkelton, a Siskind expert and author who has worked at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Los Angeles County Museum, was pulled in to put the show together, with the help of Amy Rule, the center's archivist. Conkelton has arranged her handsome exhibition chronologically, tracing what she calls "Siskind's lifelong investigation of abstraction and two-dimensionality and their expressive possibilities."

The earliest pictures are a surprise. Born in 1903 in New York's Lower East Side, the son of Jewish immigrants, Siskind grew up among lefties and had aspirations to be a poet. He trained as a teacher, but a camera he received as a honeymoon gift in 1930 changed his life. The new photographer became a member of the Photo League, a progressive, politically conscious group determined to document the injustices of urban life. Siskind headed its Harlem Document project for three years.

The pictures he made then are interesting not only for what they reveal about Harlem in the 1930s, but for what they tell us about Siskind's preoccupations, present and future. An untitled 1937 photo pictures a row of brownstones fairly bristling with the colorful signs of the businesses that occupy them. In one house, Jones Barbershop is in a basement right underneath the first-floor Interdenominational Pentecostal Church, complete with stained-glass window. Next door is Mary Johnson's Bonaparte School, home of the mysterious "Bonaparte system." Remarkably, there's not a single human being strolling through this lively district. Even then, Siskind was less interested in picturing humans than he was in examining the way they "mark" their environments, with signs, with pictures, with symbols they use to make themselves heard.

After that Martha's Vineyard seaweed conversion, Siskind ached to get at that deeper level of meaning.

"For the first time in my life," he wrote in 1945, "subject matter, as such, ceased to be of primary importance. Instead, I found myself involved in the relationships of these objects."

He was still looking at the urban streestscape, but on the microlevel of crumbling concrete walls and graffiti. "Chicago," 1953, is a jazzy work with chalk marks swirling across an undulating painterly surface in grays, blacks and whites. It suggests the spirit of Chicago far better than any number of dutiful documentary shots of the lakeshore and the architecture ever could. "Cusco 64," from 1975, is a beautifully composed close-up picture of interlocking stones, carefully put together by some long-ago Peruvian laborer. But the seams between the stones become a monument to the forgotten man's fine craftsmanship, and restore him from anonymity.

The wonderful irony of Siskind's work is that these abstracted pictures of objects, as he so aptly wrote in 1945, "turned out to be deeply moving and personal experiences."

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