The Conflicting Rhythms of Aaron Siskind
By Janis Bultman
Published in Darkroom Photography, March 1984 and in Legacies: Interviews with Masters of Photography from Darkroom Photography Magazine, 2018.
Photography wasn’t his first choice among the arts, but at age 26, when Aaron Siskind (1903-1991) finally took a camera into his hands, he knew he’d found his medium. His subsequent contribution to photography, both as a photographer and a teacher, has been substantial, as has been his influence on several generations of visual artists—painters as well as photographers.
Siskind has published several collections of photographs, including Places and Harlem Document, and is the subject of a critical biography by Carl Chiarenza, Aaron Siskind: Pleasures and Terrors. At 79, he continues to photograph, based from his comfortable two-story home on a quiet, residential street in Providence, Rhode Island.
JB: Why did you become a photographer?
AS: I wanted to be a writer and a musician, and I was an abject failure at both of them. I was given a camera as a belated wedding present in 1930, and it soon came to mean a great deal to me. It gave me a boost because I felt such a sense of failure then. I’d made a bad marriage. My wife, whom I’d known since childhood, was very sick mentally. I was really in a very bad way and felt a great need to be successful at something creative. I began by taking pictures at various odd moments and did that on my own for about two years.
JB: How did you become involved with the Photo League?
AS: In 1932 or 1933, in the depths of the Depression, I wandered in and saw an exhibition that really moved me, so I joined. I soon learned that the Photo League was related to the Communist Party. They kept trying to convert me. I was already politically sophisticated because I was brought up as a socialist. As a child, I was a member of the Junior Young People’s Socialist League, and I was a little radical in high school. All that made me politically aware. I subsequently lost interest in politics when I took up with music and poetry.
The Photo League renewed my interest in politics. After I joined, I went to the Worker’s School and took classes, but never joined the Party. At that time, though, everybody was involved in the radical movement because it seemed like it was a ray of hope. That’s why during the years when they were investigating these people, they turned up so-called Communist connections everywhere because almost everybody belonged to an organization like the Film and Photo League or the Artists Union. I was an active member in the Photo League. I took charge of exhibitions, put them together, and shipped them around to union halls and places like that. In 1936, we formed a real production group—the Feature Group—that met regularly and kept minutes.
JB: What did the Photo League teach you about photography?
AS: In the beginning, I learned a lot of simple basic things. I didn’t know anything. The people there helped me set up a darkroom. We held regular critiquing sessions that I learned a lot from.
JB: The group was devoted exclusively to documentary photography, wasn’t it?
AS: That’s right. Almost every other kind of photography was a hateful thing to the people in the Photo League. There were only a few photographers working outside the group who they admired. These were naturally people who had done documentary work and were either apolitical or pro-political, like Paul Strand. But if you were a good documentary photographer yet hated all kinds of political movements and organizations—like Walker Evans—you were out.
JB: Wasn’t the Photo League’s aim to make propagandistic documentary photographs?
AS: They had a motto: “Art is a weapon of the working class.”
JB: How did you feel about that?
AS: I was willing to investigate it. We spent a lot of time examining the relationship between a picture and an idea, what you can say with a picture. We made several “documents”—studies of various segments of New York life. The big one was the Harlem Document. These weren’t really propagandistic pictures. We did furnish our photographs to some left magazines, but we also sold them to Fortune and Look. We just wanted to promote a larger understanding of the plight of certain segments of society. There were people involved, though, who were very political, and who would consciously use these pictures for political purposes.
JB: What were your conclusions after exploring the Photo League’s theories?
AS: My conclusion was to get the hell out. The atmosphere there was very intolerant, and I could not long tolerate a situation where directives were handed down to you, where self-motivation was absent. I couldn’t stand that—not in the making of anything you call art. It was essentially a very tight political organization. Those members who held different opinions were always thrown out and ostracized. If you didn’t believe [he makes a slashing motion across his throat], zingo. If you disagreed, zingo.
JB: Did your involvement in the Photo League ever come back to haunt you during the McCarthy witch-hunts?
AS: No, I was never brought to task for being a member. But I was only a member, and that doesn’t prove you’re a Communist, although someone told me he saw a dossier on me at the FBI, and they have me down as a Communist.
A well-known photographer and very good friend of mine, Max Yavno, was a Party member. He was president of the Photo League for a while. They would never make me the president, although I was ten times more active than he was, simply because I wasn’t a Communist. When he went into the army, he wanted to get into the officer’s training program, and they put him on the carpet. The FBI came around and interviewed me because at one time we lived together. You know, it was funny. If we were together, it was me people would take for the Communist. I looked more like a Jew-boy Communist, you know? Max, in comparison, looked like a bourgeois. He was always meticulously dressed and his shoes were always beautifully shined.
JB: Didn’t you live with Yavno in a part of Greenwich Village where a number of artists had congregated, artists whose work and ideas subsequently affection the direction your work took?
AS: Yes, and what was interesting was that just as I became disillusioned, a lot of artists who were members of the Artists Union and so forth were becoming equally disillusioned. They didn’t like being dictated to either, and so they got out, one after the other. This seemed to set them free. Then, when the war began, European artists began immigrating to New York—wonderful artists—and they had considerable influence. As American artists acquired self-confidence, they began asserting themselves, changing their styles, experimenting. That was the beginning of the abstract expressionist movement, which made America a leader in the world of art. I became a part of it later on after I had done a little work on my own. I had a show at one of the leading avant-garde galleries, the Egan gallery, in 1947, and three more shows in quick succession.
JB: Your abstract photographs are often compared to the work of artists like de Kooning, Kline, and Pollock, and it’s generally assumed that they influenced you. But didn’t your work in that vein actually precede theirs?
AS: Some of it did, some of it did not. People are so uptight about influences—who did it before the other guy, where you got your ideas from, and all of that. But no artist exists by himself. Everybody gets ideas from someone else. This is the nature of all cultural acts, which have within themselves an endless history. My photographs have within themselves a particular history. Exactly what that history is is not easy to dig out, even for me. That’s for a historian like Carl Chiarenza. These things are very intricate. What most people don’t realize is that the whole process is wonderful. I had real contact with other artists, and I was receiving what they had in a very live way—rejecting some things, using others. I did show at the Egan gallery three years before Franz Kline, with whom I was very close. De Kooning had his first show a couple of years after I did. I don’t know how important those facts are.
JB: Your meetings with these artists were informal more often than not, taking place in restaurants and taverns like the Cedar Bar. When you met, did you criticize each other’s work per se, or were your meetings more an interchange of ideas?
AS: It was really more an interchange of ideas, but there was also a lot of criticism. There was always a lot of talk in the studios, and, as you say, in the bars. A lot of talk. I remember that in all that time I was fairly silent. My background in the visual arts was not very strong. My background was in poetry, literature, and music. I found a great deal of satisfaction in making pictures, and I was successful because I was using my background in literature and in poetry and music to do it. Then, little by little, as I got to know more about art, the influence of the other visual artists, like painters, became stronger and stronger.
JB: How were you using music and poetry in your photography?
AS: I found, in the early years, that I was organizing my abstract pictures rhythmically. As an example of what I’m talking about, I remember trying to get a particular student then to make a picture that way, not simply as a rendition of a subject. I told her, go out and get going rhythmically, and then little by little you’ll find that what is visual and what is rhythmic will come together—in terms of accents, of longs and shorts. So that’s where the music went. Not only in a generally inspirational way, but in terms of rhythm and repetitions that can be expressed visually.
Now, poetry was a little bit deeper and subtler. I saw I was beginning to make pictures that were ambiguous, that had multiple meanings. I remember pondering that—asking myself, what does this mean? Why do you do this? The answer I came up with is we just don’t see simply. I’m seeing that and seeing that [he points to the periphery]. And at the same time, I’m remembering, drawing on memory. That’s the kind of picture I waned to make—a picture that has meaning, or meanings, and depth. That’s what poetry is.
I think the thing that I’ve contributed to photography is that I began to bring the other arts in in a very organic way. Later on, I began to bring the other visual arts into my prints and influence other artists as well. Painters began to come to photography to get ideas. After a while, it got to be so intertwined, flowing back and forth, that it would be very difficult to determine where anything came from. But that’s wonderful.
In the Seventies, to commemorate and honor this interchange, I worked for three years on my “Homage to Franz Kline.” I tell my students that and it’s a big shock to them because they look at me and see somebody original and special, and then I talk about the community of artists—how wonderful this thing is to be in contact with all these wonderful minds. I say this is a thing to celebrate. You celebrate influences. You celebrate relationships.
JB: One photographer with whom you’re constantly paired in print and at exhibitions is Harry Callahan. Yet your work is very different.
AS: Yes, our work is very, very different. The only similarity is that our photographs are simply just pictures, and we both work very economically. The statement is clear and clean. His you can understand. Mine you can’t understand. But it looks clear—sparse, you know? There were very few photographers, and since we were teaching together, people always thought of us together and showed us together in Europe and all over the country. But I think our relationship has endured because our work is so different and our personalities are so different. We’re not competitive.
JB: How did you meet?
AS: I met Harry in New York through a mutual photographer friend. Later on, I went out to Chicago, and we went out and did some shooting together in an automobile graveyard. The next time we got together, I think, was in Black Mountain, where we taught together one summer. He had been running the photography program at the Chicago Institute of Design, and he had been asking me to come out.
JB: He asked you a number of times, didn’t he?
AS: Yeah, and I didn’t want to leave New York. Then I quit my elementary school teaching job and thought I’d become a real photographer.
JB: What made you decide to do that?
AS: I had just taken my first sabbatical in twenty-three years. I was on the Vineyard where I always went in the summer, walking with a friend of mine, Jane Teller, a sculptor whom I’d known for many years. We sat down to rest, and I took a postcard out of my pocket to show her. It was an offer to teach photography one day a week at Trenton Junior College in New Jersey for $1000 a year. I said to her, “You know, Janie, if I had the assurance of another $1000, I think I’d quit my teaching job, but my parents are getting old, and I have to contribute something to the household, so I have to have a decent income.” And so Janie, who’s fairly well off, said, “Aaron, if all you need is $1000 to do what you want to do I’ll give you $1000.” So I took the job. A week later, I went down to the Board of Education and resigned. I was 46 or 47 and had taught elementary school ever since I got out of college.
JB: When did you take Callahan up on his offer?
AS: I worked in Trenton for two years. All that time, Harry kept writing me. He knew that I was just the right guy for him, that I knew how to teach and had done documentary work. So I went out there, and we worked together for ten years. Then he came here to Providence, to the Rhode Island School of Design. I stayed on at the Institute of Design for another ten years, and when they threw me out of there—I’d reached retirement age—he invited me to come here. So we taught here together, and we’re still very close friends.
JB: How did the celebrity that you and your work acquired in the Seventies affect you?
AS: After such a long time without it, it just made me feel better. We were nowhere in the Fifties and Sixties. I couldn’t make a living from my photography. I was selling pictures for $10 and $20. Photography was growing then. I had a lot of graduate students who were doing interesting photography, I was showing more—all those things are nice, you know? But I can’t remember ever being able to get through a month on my salary in the Sixties. I always had to do a portrait job or even photograph paintings. I did a lot of that. Callahan and I would do any job we could get. I remember once we got a job with the Encyclopedia Britannica, Jr., making pictures illustrating experiments—like how water is absorbed by a sponge. We were both lousy at it, although he was a little better than me. We called ourselves Dumb Photographers Inc., and we got $25 a shot.
Then in 1966, everything changed for me. I had a brother I hardly talked to. He was an engineer who had written books on engineering and taught at Purdue University. He died, and I inherited $50,000 from him because he didn’t leave a will. The first thing I did was to borrow $10,000 against my inheritance from the bank that was handling the will. Then I had $10,000. I bought my Eames chair, a new hi-fi system, a Volvo, and we had a little left, so we went to Europe. I finally got a Guggenheim then too, and that helped. From then on, everything has been very nice.
JB: I assume that’s when you began traveling all over the world, which brings me to the concept of “place” in your photographs. Your monograph is called Places, and you’ve returned to the same places time and time again to photograph—Corfu, Mexico, and Peru. Yet one would never recognize those places in your photographs.
AS: That’s a very interesting question, and I think about it a lot. What effect does place have on what I’m photographing, and are my pictures really about that place? Well, they’re not really about that place, but I can’t figure out what else they’re about. When I did the Franz Kline series, I did it in three countries. If you look at the pictures, they’re quite different. Whether my being there and how I feel when I’m there has any kind of effect, I can’t tell you definitely, although everyone will say that logically it must have. Certainly, everything I photographed was either touched or made by the people who were there. Is that significant? Does it show? I don’t know. At the time, I was interested not only in recording it, but also converting it for my own purposes to what I wanted it to say for me. So the effect of place is very dubious, or certainly indefinite. I think that what comes into play more than anything is what I was talking about before—art and my relationship to art and artists and the history of art. That’s what makes me see what I see, and it gives me the means by which I can translate it. A lot of people talk about my removing myself from the world. They’re wrong for many reasons.
JB: Removing yourself from the world in the sense that your photographs are abstract?
AS: Yes. They’re wrong because I’m relating to the history of art and how people have been thinking for many, many centuries, all over the world. I am in contact with the world in my way, but in order to make contact with that world while I’m working, I have to remove myself from the world of events. When you’re making a picture, you have to be alone with what you’re making the picture with. You’re having a conversation with that stuff, see? And you are a very, very complicated person at that moment. You have all the history of art in you. You’ve got the pictures you made yesterday or fifteen minutes ago. And you have to isolate yourself from the traffic noise, from the people, from everything. Then you get your intensity. Even photojournalists have to do that. They’ll knock down people, kick things out of the way, and the more intense they are, the better their pictures are. And what about the people who are there? You think about them, feel them, see them, but not when you’re making the picture. They’re there, but in a kind of subtle, insinuating way.
JB: What kinds of cameras have you used over the years?
AS: I haven’t had a great many cameras or changed formats very often. For the first ten years, I worked with an inexpensive Voigtlander Avis I bought in 1932 for $28. It was wonderful. Then I dropped it, and it broke, so I bought another to replace it. That one was stolen while I was living with Max Yavno. His reaction was, “Thank god! Now you can get a decent camera.” I bought a slightly better one, an inexpensive Linhof, second-hand. With the Linhof, I went to 4×5. I used that for many, many years, and I still have it. In the last ten to fifteen years I’ve been using a single lens Rollei. I use it as a view camera. It’s too heavy to hold in my hands.
I use an enlarger like anybody else’s. I print my pictures straight. I don’t fuss. Harry and I have never fussed. I often say to students there isn’t anything I know about making a picture that you can’t learn in a year’s time. When my assistant Judy prints a picture of mine, I say I want it like this, and she does it. You can’t tell hers from mine. Sometimes hers come out even a little better than mine. I print the early stages of things. I do the proofing and the first print so that she’ll have something to work from.
JB: Is there a film you prefer?
AS: No one more than any other. I keep buying different brands, but there’s very little difference, although each one has slightly different characteristics. As for the paper, Ilford is making one with more silver in it now, Galerie. That’s what we use sometimes.
JB: A few years ago, you mentioned to an interviewer that you were playing around with color.
AS: I’ve tried, yeah. On my last trip to Peru, I did black-and-white and color. I haven’t gotten anything great yet. There’s something wrong in my perception of color, I think. I don’t have any idea what the picture’s going to turn out like when I shoot it. I know the shapes and so forth, but not how dense it’s going to be, how much contrast is going to be in it, how the different colors will finally work out in configuration. I also have a habit of working in diffused light, and that’s very bad for color. So I haven’t had much luck.
JB: One final question. Religious icons are thematic to your work. Are you religious?
AS: Not really, and maybe that’s why it’s so important to my work. I take the rational view of life. There’s no life after death. I’m not big enough to comprehend a god. I love church architecture. I love church music. But I think the guy’s talking a lot of nonsense. Now that’s what I consciously believe. But I really am another kind of person. I hear music, I cry. I see an event, and I’m just melted. I love to sit in churches. When I was a young man, that’s all I used to do—sit and read in a church. It’s hard to read in church. The light’s bad. So what do I do? I make icons, photographs that contain various elements that can be used for inspiration and contemplation. What’s happening is that I’m taking this real inner conflict and resolving it in a picture. That’s the source of the tensions in my pictures. They’re there because I’m resolving, or trying to resolve, inner conflicts.