The ninth of ten "epiphanous photographs" - a hand-picked series of photographs as defined in an earlier Blog entry - is...
Epiphanous Photograph #9: Aaron Siskind's Jerome (Arizona, 1949)
Aaron Siskind (1903-1991), an American abstract expressionist photographer, began his career on his honeymoon, after receiving a camera as a wedding gift. Originally an English teacher, he later taught photography (with Harry Callahan) at the Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago (from the 1950's into the 1980's). As an artist, he started taking documentary photographs of Harlem in the 1930s when he was a member of the New York Workers' Film and Photo League, but later evolved into a deep abstract impressionist, focusing his attention on cracked walls, peeling paint, fences, and graffiti. His own transition from documentary-style photography, and its strict adherence to the primacy of subject matter, to abstraction, as a conceptual and artistic vehicle for individual expression, marked a general turning point in twentieth-century American photography.
His Jerome, Arizona image is a good example of his unique artistic eye; it is also the very first image by Siskind that I can recall seeing (and being mesmerized by ever since!) While it shares the same basic abstract impressionistic aesthetic space as Weston's Pepper, Minor White's Capitol Reef, and Harry Callahan's Ivy Tentacles on Glass, it (and Siskind's whole general approach) represents a subtle departure from those other photographers.
For Siskind, the flat two-dimensional frame of the picture surface is the sole frame of reference of the photograph. As Siskind describes in an exhibition catalog of his work in 1965,...
"...The experience itself may be described as one of total absorption in the object. But the object serves only a personal need and the requirements of the picture. Thus, rocks are sculpted forms; a section of common decorative iron-work, springing rhythmic shapes; fragments of paper sticking to a wall, a conversation piece. And these forms, totems, masks, figures, images must finally take their place in the tonal field of the picture and strictly conform to their space environment. The obejct has entered the picture, in a sense; it has been photographed directly. But it is often unrecognizable; for it has been removed from its usual context, disassociated from its customary neighbors and forced into new relationships."
Weston, White and Callahan all taught (me) that "ordinary things" may be viewed (and understood) as symbols of abstract "otherness" (and, in White's case, of one's "inner state"); Aaron Siskind has taught me that when the last vestiges of all conventional reference frames are removed from a composition - deliberately, so as to force the viewer to rely on a more primitive language of context-less shapes and tones - a even deeper, ineffable beauty emerges. And Siskind's Jerome, Arizona is another reason I love fine-art photography. (More of Siskind's photographs can be seen here (#1) and here (#2).)