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Book of the Week: Selected by Blake Andrews

Book Review Mid Century Modern Photographs by Aaron Siskind Reviewed by Blake Andrews “If photography were a person, its therapy bill would be astronomical. Since its inception it has suffered one identity crisis after another. Following initial struggles to separate itself from painting, early photographers couldn’t decide which category fit photography best..."

Mid Century Modern by Aaron Siskind.
Mid Century Modern
Photographs by Aaron Siskind

Museum of Photographic Arts, 2022. In English. 173 pp., 82 B&W Plates, 11¼x11¼".

If photography were a person, its therapy bill would be astronomical. Since its inception it has suffered one identity crisis after another. Following initial struggles to separate from painting, early photographers couldn’t decide which category fit photography best. Were photographs scientific documents? Historical records? Artistic expressions? Agents of social change? Some combination of these applications? Something else entirely? Photographers have spent the last 180+ years puzzling through this stuff, and we’re no closer to an answer now than ever. But that’s ok. Ambiguity comes with the territory.

Photography’s identity crisis was personified in Aaron Siskind. Born in 1903, he became an earnest practitioner of social documentary photography. As the US plodded toward WWII he was settled in New York City, where he’d graduated from City College of NY, joined The Photo League in 1936 and shot his first major project, Harlem Document. His photos from the period dutifully recorded people, neighborhoods, apartments and the fabric of daily life. Roughly speaking, they followed the stylistic tradition of contemporaries Sid Grossman, Berenice Abbott and Arthur Rothstein.

Yet even as Siskind plowed ahead, aesthetic dissatisfaction was seeping in. His new social cohort only fueled the flames. He began to frequent Village bars where he became friendly with painters like Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Franz Kline and Willem De Kooning. Within a few short years they would turn the art world on its head through Abstract Expressionism. But at the time they presented a less turbulent prospect. Siskind and the artists bounced ideas off one another, often late into the night. Perhaps it’s no surprise that Siskind’s photography began moving toward abstraction. The NY photo scene, meanwhile, was less eager for change. Tensions came to a boil with Siskind’s 1941 formalist exhibition Tabernacle City, which went over like a lead balloon among fellow photographers. Siskind soon dropped out of The Photo League and documentary circles, and never looked back.

Siskind’s journey over the next twenty years is fleshed out in the recent book Mid-Century Modern, published in conjunction with a recent exhibition at San Diego’s Museum of Photographic Arts. It collects 82 monochrome compositions from 1943-1961, sequenced roughly in chronological order. The whole package is couched cooly in a fifties design aesthetic, mirroring the palette and font of old Blue Note albums, with a title to match the zeitgeist: Mid-Century Modern. In one fell swoop it identifies the time period, but more importantly its aesthetic timbre. Siskind’s photographs from the period routinely push abstraction past recognizability, past documentary connection, past any earthly baggage and into a clean orbit of high modernism.

When the photos begin, in early 1940s Gloucester, they’re still rooted in real world objects. A clasping glove and discarded wood parts push toward pure composition, yet they’re easily recognizable as artifacts. From this point Siskind leapt with both feet into abstraction. Wall stains shot in Chicago, beach grass from Martha’s Vineyard and peeling paint in Maine present a Rorschach test to viewers. What exactly are we looking at? Using a 5 x 7 view camera he rendered it all in magnificent tonality and resolution. It didn’t seem to matter what Siskind encountered. Before his lens everything was transformed into monochrome planes, close cousins to Franz Kline’s scrawls or Robert Motherwell’s splotchy fragments.

The core of the book follows Siskind to a variety of locations: Hoboken, Los Angeles, Kentucky, Mexico and of course his familiar haunts of Martha’s Vineyard and New York. They are captioned by place and date, but without that information readers would be hard-pressed to identify where or when any were taken, or even what the source material is. After browsing these pages such concerns melt away. Siskind’s images verge toward the transcendental. The subject matter had been lost and in its place, Siskind was finding himself. Identity crisis be damned.

Not that he was a completely free spirit. Siskind developed firm philosophical underpinnings for his pictures. These were enumerated in a brief essay he called the Credo. It’s excerpted in drop quotes through the book, and the full text appears in the afterword. “When I make a photograph I want it to be an altogether new object,” Siskind writes, “complete and self contained, whose basic condition is order… unlike the world of events and actions whose permanent condition is change and disorder… First, and emphatically, I accept the flat plane of the picture as the primary frame of reference of the picture…” The Credo goes on for a few paragraphs but this passage captures the gist of it.

Whatever identity crisis Siskind suffered in the 30s, his direction resolved by the late 1950s. The war period evolved into boom years. He settled into middle age, joining Harry Callahan at the Institute of Chicago, and later RISD. Together they, along with Frederick Sommer, Minor White and others, led photography into a period of modernist refinement. But that’s a story for another book. This one ends just as the movement is picking up steam. The last photograph in the book is from 1961. Captioned San Luis Petosi 24, it depicts a messy clutch of calligraphic shapes. Perhaps it is paint on stucco? Or tire tracks in the snow? It’s impossible to tell really, and that’s fine. The photo has teeth. It leaves a mark. So did Siskind.

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Blake Andrews is a photographer based in Eugene, OR. He writes about photography at