New York

Aaron Siskind

Light Gallery

Aaron Siskind is now 80, but, as this show demonstrated, he continues to work with undiminished force: two-thirds of the 100 photographs here have been made since 1980. The rest included examples of various themes he’s worked on over the years, ranging from his social-reformist documentary work of the ’30s, through his radical discovery in the early ’40s that the formal allusiveness of objects could be startingly intensified by using the photographic frame to isolate them from their surroundings, to the work of the ’50s and ’60s in which he explored the implications of that discovery. Siskind is one of the best representatives of the many strengths of Modernist photography. His work shows neither the sentimental, mystical estheticism found in the work of Alfred Stieglitz and his descendants, nor the utopian formalism and machine-worship of the Bauhaus photographers, as exemplified by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. Instead Siskind combines an insistence on the formal qualities of the medium—composition within the frame, gradations of tone and texture—with an American, introspective (and Freudian) concern with the primal emotional images generated by the unconscious. His great achievement lies in his recognition that the photograph, despite the fact that by its very nature it embodies culturally defined representational schemes and values, reveals those primal images as unavoidably as any other picture-making process.

Using the frame to cut objects loose from their conventional definitions, Siskind draws attention to the meanings suggested by their visual forms. Typically he focuses in on small parts of the world—sections of walls covered with graffiti or torn posters, people’s feet, divers silhouetted against the sky. In doing so he achieves the basic Modernist goal of investing the world with fresh meaning while remaining true to his medium—a particularly difficult thing to do in photography, which exists in a standard form only by cultural agreement. By choosing to present his primal images through photography, using conventional technique without manipulation, Siskind maintains a constant tension and opposition between the individual vision that discovers these forms, and the socially dictated meaning provided by photography’s conventional categories of subject matter.

Siskind’s implicit championing of individual perception in the face of conventional representation may seem romantic today, when the notion of the pictorial is widely regarded as inherently debased by the mass media—when all pictures seem to have been reduced to types, incapable of presenting anything other than predetermined meanings. In this atmosphere many photographers attempt to reduce the pictorial in their work to the condition of advertising images or flash cards, relying on irony and the adroit placement of the work within the art world and within criticism to respond to what is seen as the product nature of all pictures today. Siskind’s stance, on the other hand, does not deny the culture its power, but insists on the primacy of individual perception within it. Implicitly heroic, his approach is made more so by his persistence in it through 50 years of work.

In the new photographs here Siskind continues to explore his familiar wall markings and posters, along with such new subjects as torn window screens and draped cloths. The conversation between two figures identified by Carl Chiarenza as one of the photographer’s central images (in his excellent biography of Siskind, Aaron Siskind: Pleasures and Terrors) continues in these works, now often accompanied by hollow boxlike forms. But a new crudeness and urgency in the graffiti pictures is indicated by a splashy, dripping quality in the marks. Letter forms and their permutations, long prominent in Siskind’s work, have become increasingly runic, indecipherable scrawlings.

Siskind’s dramas of form usually take place on a shallow stage, but often he will puncture his flat spaces by including a window or the edge of a wall. Sometimes these are simply black holes within the image, suggesting infinite depths while taking part in the surface play. The central point of Siskind’s work is demonstrated by the fact that this formal trope, which appears in some of the most recent photographs in the show, also occurs in the oldest, from the “Tabernacle City” series, ca. 1934. In this ostensibly documentary photograph of the side of a delicately ornamented building, deep black slit windows pierce the wall in the sort of dialogue of allusive forms that Siskind continues to explore.

Charles Hagen