Aaron Siskind Biography

Aaron Siskind




Photographer, writer, and educator Aaron Siskind was born in New York City on December 4, 1903. He earned his BSS in literature from City College in 1926 and began teaching high school English, which he would continue to teach until 1947. In 1930 he discovered photography after recieving a camera as a wedding gift, and soon discovered a passion for the medium, joining the Film and Photo League, which was dedicated to improving social conditions through photography. Among his most well known early works are the social realist photos he took for the his Harlem Document project (1937 to 1940), as well as Dead End: the Bowery; Lost Generation: the Plight of Youth Today; and Sixteenth Street: a Cross-Section of New York, among others. Soon after, his focus became more avant-garde, and a series of abstract images, titled Tabernacle City, caused a rift between the other members and himself. He left the League at this time, choosing to acquaint himself with New York's leading abstract artists of the time, including Frank Kline and Mark Rothko. 

Of note regarding Siskind's take on abstraction was his focus on the details of urban structures to create unrelated compositions, using portions of three dimensional objects to create a flat, two dimensional images, removing the objectivity from the subject. Details of graffiti, cracks in sidewalks and tar-repaired streets, and other everyday objects  taken out of context became something new through Siskind's lens. This work was embraced by Harry Callahan and Robert Rauschenberg, his fellow teachers at Black Mountain College in the summer of 1950, and before long he was invited by Callahan to join the faculty of the Illinois Institute of Design - founded by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy as the New Bauhaus - where he became head of the Photography Department in 1959. In 1951 Elaine de Kooning wrote the introduction for Siskind's show at the Charles Egan Gallery where he frequently exhibited. He would publish his first of several books on subject of photography in 1959. 

Siskind was a founding member of the Society for Photographic Education and the Visual Studies Workshop. He received a Guggenheim Fellowship, Gold Star of Merit Award (Philadelphia College of Art), and NEA grant, and the Governor's Prize for the Arts, Rhode Island. He taught at the Rhode Island School of Design from 1971 to 1976, when he retired from teaching and focused entirely on his work and to establishing a foundation to control the sales of his vintage photos in support of contemporary photography programs. 

Siskind continued to work and exhibit until his death on February 8, 1991. His works are held in the permanent collections of the Art Institute of Chicago; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; the J. Paul Getty Museum (Los Angeles); the Museum of Modern Art (NY); and the Metropolitan Museum of Art (NY), among others.