A New Way of Looking
Aaron Siskind in Gloucester
March 23, 2004

Most mornings, Aaron Siskind emerged from his rented East Gloucester studio lugging his camera and tripod and headed for the wharves and beaches. He had spent the 1930s photographing people and architecture in New York and at Martha's Vineyard. But by that summer of 1944, he later wrote, "For some reason or other there was in me the desire to see the world clean and fresh and alive, as primitive things are clean and fresh and alive. The so-called documentary picture left me wanting something." Here in Gloucester, Mass., he continued to shoot documentary images -- boys playing on wharves, people walking in front of a building -- and explore the odd, dreamlike juxtapositions of surrealism. But his photographs were growing more and more abstract as he focused sharply and closely on the objects he passed during his walks. He removed the surrounding context from his images and the sense of three-dimensional space, and found the mature style that would make him known as one of the preeminent photographers of the 20th century. "For the first time in my life subject matter, as such, had ceased to be of primary importance. Instead, I found myself involved in the relationships of these objects, so much so that these pictures turned out to be deeply moving and personal experiences," Siskind wrote about his time in Gloucester in his 1945 essay, "The Drama of Objects." Siskind's artistic development parallels -- and sometimes precedes -- the transition in modernist American (and especially New York) art from the social realism of the 1930s to the abstraction expressionism of the 1940s and '50s. The abstract paintings would come to resemble his photographs and vice versa, but unlike the painters, who turned away from representational imagery, Siskind's work remained derived from precisely seen glimpses of the actual world. Siskind's work from his summers in Gloucester in 1944 and '45 is featured in the exhibit "Interior Drama: Aaron Siskind's Photographs of the 1940s" on view at the Rhode Island School of Design's Museum of Art through the weekend. Jan Howard, who organized the show and is curator of prints, drawings and photographs at the Providence, R.I., museum, says of Siskind's time in Gloucester: "I think it's a real breakthrough period for him."

The Material

Siskind was short and stocky. Some thought he looked like a cab driver. He was a gregarious man who spoke with the accent of New York, where he was born to immigrant Russian Jews on Dec. 4, 1903, and lived half his life. While studying social science at City College of New York, he joined a literary group whose members included Adolph Gottlieb and Barnett Newman, who would both become painters and would play key roles in Siskind's development as an artist. Soon after he graduated in 1926, he began teaching English to fifth- to ninth-graders in the New York public school system. He took up photography after getting his first camera as a wedding present in 1929. Siskind joined the Film and Photo League, a cultural organization of the International Workers Relief and affiliate of the Communist Party, in 1932. The group was a place to meet other photographers and learn techniques. Frustrated with the group's strict politics, Siskind quit in 1935, but rejoined the following year to become head of the Photo League's Feature Group. He organized documentary projects on tenement life, the Bowery, Park Avenue and Harlem that illustrated the disparity between socioeconomic classes. But Siskind slowly edged away from strict documentary. On his own, he shot a series of photographs isolating the architectural details of buildings when he summered on Martha's Vineyard in 1939 and '40. He also photographed driftwood, bones and curls of seaweed on the beach sand there. He was inspired and challenged by Alfred Stieglitz's "Equivalents," a series of photographs of clouds that aimed for the abstract but emotional qualities of music, and Walker Evans' photographs of buildings, graffiti and signs from across the country. And Siskind became drawn to surrealist art as a window into the subconscious and a way to respond to the horrors of World War II. "Surrealism freed us to accept certain strange shapes and gave us many examples of how to interpret this crazy, irregular, unexpected, irrational world," Siskind said in a 1969 interview. He arrived in East Gloucester in July 1944, staying in a studio that Gottlieb found for him. "Spent a couple days getting the place in shape ... and exploring the wharves," Siskind wrote in a July 25, 1944, letter to Newman. "Since then pounding away at the pictures every day (drunk with the material)."

'Wiping Out All Perspective'

Siskind usually walked around Gloucester for two or three hours each morning. He used a 3 1/4-inch x 4 1/4-inch Linhof camera with a Speed Graphic back and single lens, as he later wrote, "familiar enough to be an extension of my hand and eye." He often met friends at the beach in the afternoon or the group converged at Gottlieb's studio or Siskind's in the evening. He aimed to find six images each day. He photographed decaying buildings, the block and boom of a schooner, graffiti on walls and reflections in cracked window panes. He studied objects he found on the wharves -- chains, seaweed, lobster legs, strands of rope and fish heads. He circled them, moving in close and backing away, to find the right angle, the right pattern of the weathered planks, the right play of light and shadow. He was finding a new style, a new way of looking. A standout photograph from 1944 called "Gloucester 1H," shows a discarded glove lying on the wharf planks with the fingers twisted as if pointing toward something outside the frame. "I realized that I had to take that picture looking straight down and that that line had to be straight and by doing that -- wiping out all perspective -- I was able to take that glove that was lying there at an angle and make it something that was confronting you -- it was no longer a glove," Siskind told the Boston Phoenix in 1977. Siskind also shot close-ups of the boulders at Bass Rocks, showing them fractured and worn, with barnacles creeping up the sides. He and friends had sunned themselves and strolled at Bass Rocks during the summer of 1943. But after photographing pre-Columbian stone sculptures for a New York gallery show that Newman organized the following winter, Siskind returned to Gloucester in 1944 with a new eye for the granite. "Pressed for the meaning of these pictures," Siskind wrote in an 1945 essay, "I should answer, obliquely, that they are informed with animism -- not so much that these inanimate objects resemble the creatures of the animal world (as indeed they often do), but rather that they suggest the energy we usually associate with them. Aesthetically, they pretend to the resolution of these sometimes fierce, sometimes gentle, but always conflicting forces."

Confined Space

Artistically, Siskind was heading out on a limb. Other photographers encouraged him to stick with documentary photography. Many in the art world still did not accept photography as an artistic medium, let alone a route to explore abstraction. But he was encouraged by his friends Gottlieb, Newman (who spent time with Siskind in Gloucester in 1944) and Mark Rothko (who painted watercolors while staying with Siskind in Gloucester in 1945). The three men would become prominent abstract expressionist painters. Over the following years, Siskind's primary subjects became graffiti and splashes of paint on walls, peeling signs and wallpaper, as well as occasional trees, stones and nudes. Like the abstract expressionists, he emphasized the flat plane of the picture surface rather than the image as illusionistic space. Like them, he often paired down his images to simple marks and fields of color. His best compositions are alive with swooping lines and busy patterns, while also alluding to disintegration, time passing, memories fading. Before Siskind died in 1991, he would influence a generation of photographers with his work and by teaching photography during the late 1940s at Trenton Junior College in N.J., and then at the Institute of Design in Chicago from 1951 to '71 and at Rhode Island School of Design from 1971 to '76. "He pointed to this whole new way of working with the camera," Howard says. Interviewed on the occasion of a 1978 photography exhibit that he helped organize at the Rhode Island School of Design museum, Siskind said, "I finally got to my own expression because I came to a deep realization that all of the action takes place in this confined space (of the picture) and that by working in the confined space I could arrive at a unique expressiveness. And so when I finally took a picture of a glove that was lying down and I stood it up and there it was right in that space. The power of that picture to me was so great that I realized that this was a meaningful way to work."