In a narrow hallway adjacent to the Amuse restaurant you will find a small treasure of photographs by Aaron Siskin, Harry Callahan, Minor White and Gina Lenz. that revolutionized photography in their time. Curated by Dr. Sarah Eckhardt, Assistant Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, these representatives of abstract expressionist photography are on display at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts until June 16, 2013.
Although Siskind’s photographs are of recognizable artifacts, they are considered abstract because the images are not narrative in nature, rather they are about formal elements and the meaning of the content within the social-cultural context of the time. Abstract-expressionism was a driving force in the art world when Siskind made these images and his work asserted that photography had a role to play in this art movement.
Siskind chose to photograph objects of no value; many of the objects are the discarded remnants of industrial society: rust, peeling paint, patches of broadsides, gloves, and erased posters, among many others. These are not the majestic landscapes of Ansel Adams or the refined nude studies of Edward Weston – these are gritty and sordid selections from the backside of industry.
For photographers, Siskind established that anything and everything was game – that anything could be aestheticized. You didn’t need to travel across the world, find a beautiful model, or wait for the perfect moment. You just had to stop and look down at your feet, look at the wall you just walked by, or the corner you just turned. This is the stuff of banal daily existence, but Siskind has used design, light, and framing to create visually dynamic and culturally rich images.From his perspective, the photographer is a visionary, selecting material and putting it on display in a new context.
Aaron Siskind said, “When I make a photograph I want it to be an altogether new object, complete and self-contained, whose basic condition is order — unlike the world of events and actions, whose permanent condition is change and disorder.” (Siskind) In image after image we can see this purpose as the essential thread linking all his images – taking the chaotic remnants of mass manufacturing with the urban environment it requires and imposing visual and conceptual order.
We are in a technology environment that results in more nuanced social and environmental impacts. The shopping malls have clean walls and large corporations have campuses that rival a private college. In this sanitized environment it is a relief to experience the authenticity of Siskind’s tattered posters and layers of decomposing paint.
More information on the work and legacy of Aaron Siskind can be found at the Aaron Siskind Foundation.