Aaron Siskind's Transition to Abstract Photography: 1940-43, Martha's Vineyard
Chambers, Joy S.
AARON SISKIND'S TRANSITION TO ABSTRACT PHOTOGRAPHY: 1940-43, MARTHA'S VINEYARDJOY S. CHAMBERS, J. D.DLS CHAIR: JO ANN MORAN CRUZ, Ph. D.ABSTRACTAaron Siskind was an acclaimed social realist documentary photographer in the 1930s. By the end of the Second World War, using his camera as a tool of self-expression, he created abstract photographs that led to his reputation as one of the leading art photographers of his era.This study challenges the conventional art historical narrative that considers his oeuvre as fractured, jumping abruptly from documentary photography in the 1930s to abstraction in 1944. The narrative assumes that his friendship with Abstract Expressionist painters, and exposure to their work, beginning in 1943-44, influenced his transition to abstraction. The narrative is buttressed by the fact that many of Siskind's abstractions predating these friendships have been ignored in archives or, if discovered, misdated. This study presents a collection of thirty abstract photographs from 1940-43 justifying consideration of his oeuvre as evolutionary, with Siskind's goal of self-expression uniting his documentary and abstract works. This study, based on archival photographic evidence, argues that his transition to abstraction began in 1940, years before the beginning of his friendships with Abstract Expressionist painters.This study's collection of thirty abstract photographs fills in an important missing period of Siskind's aesthetic life. Thirteen of the photographs have never been published. Understanding the life journey of Siskind enriches our understanding of how visual images work and how they increase our knowledge of the world.Siskind's transition to abstraction was fueled in part by his desire to create ambiguous images expressing his personal philosophy of dualism, derived from his interest in pre-modern literary forms as expressed in his earlier poetry. This study considers the influence of medieval poetry, particularly troubadour poetry, the prose of Renaissance medievalist Ernest Renan and the poetry of William Blake upon the creation of Siskind's philosophy. The study not only challenges the dating of this transition, it also re-contextualizes that transition as influenced by his dualistic philosophy.The title, location and publication history of each image in the collection is identified in footnotes. Siskind and his associates spent hours in taped conversation with his biographer and archivists. The collection of photographs, the tapes and the poetry are not included in the Bibliography.
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