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Aaron Siskind's photos turn the everyday into modern art

The photograph Jerome, Arizona 21 shows dark pieces of paint flaking away from a white ground. Somebody may have tried something similar in your Intro to Photography class, but this is the picture that started it all. Aaron Siskind's 1949 photo has become an iconic image in the history of photography. It exemplifies his ability to hone in on abstract forms in the real world, and, as the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston's wall text wryly points out, "has spawned endless photographs of peeling paint by imitators." It's on view as part of the MFAH's "Aaron Siskind: Centennial Celebration" exhibition celebrating the 100th anniversary of the photographer's birth.

Siskind's work is known for pushing the accepted boundaries of photography and using the medium to capture formal compositions in lieu of your typical subject matter. Rather than painting forms or drawing lines, Siskind found and isolated abstract elements in the real world that functioned the same way as the compositional elements of modern art.

But it wasn't always that way. Siskind started out making social documentary photographs in his hometown of New York City during the 1930s depression years, when people like Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans were recording the nation's poverty and devastation. The MFAH show has three images from a series Siskind shot in Harlem.

Siskin's photos hone in on abstract forms in the real world.
Courtesy of Robert Mann Gallery
Siskin's photos hone in on abstract forms in the real world.

Two of Siskind's Harlem images show people, and one depicts a street scene -- but the subjects are secondary. You can see how his interest in composition overrides the content in an image of two dancers at the Savoy. The picture is dominated by the dramatic angles of the man's arm and trouser leg. The white high heels of his partner become opposing angles against the dark background. In another image a woman leans back in a worn armchair while a large elaborately fringed lamp hovers over her head; the shapes of the lamp and the chair overwhelm the portrait. Meanwhile, Siskind's unpopulated street scene is filled with storefronts, vintage signage and decorative church windows. The image gives a plethora of social and cultural information, but that's in a dead heat with the composition elements: collections of rectangular windows and doors, an angled railing and the diagonal stripes of the barbershop pole.

By the mid-1940s, Siskind's content would become increasingly abstract. A stark 1944 image shows a grubby workman's glove on the worn planks of a wharf. The fingers of the glove are curved, still shaped by its wearer's hands. It reaches up to the viewer from the weather-beaten surface.

In other pictures from the same time period, curving sections of signage are cropped down to unreadability and become pure form. Photographs of scrawled graffiti share sensibilities with the abstract expressionists. Siskind was friends with many of them, including Franz Kline. In the early 1970s, Siskind took a series of photographs in homage to the painter. He captured marks in the everyday world that called to mind the bold strokes and gestures of Kline's paintings.

Dramatic sections of stone wall were shot against a blank sky in a series of pictures from the 1950s. Photographed close in, the dark rocks appear monumental. The forms have a solid grandeur reminiscent of the totemic boulders of Stonehenge -- in spite of the fact that they were far smaller and found on Martha's Vineyard.

Siskind's series The Pleasures and Terrors of Levitation, also from the '50s, at first seems like something of an anomaly. It shows human figures captured in the air against a flat sky. Siskind has caught them as they're diving. Standing back and viewing the images together, you realize that they aren't that far from the rock pictures. They're people, but they're shown as near-silhouettes, emphasizing their forms in space. Looking at the photographs makes you realize that the human body can create an amazing range of shapes.

A 1980s series of images was taken in Hawaiian lava fields. There's a dark, stark depth in their bubbled, lumpy stone surface. Staring at the forms, it's easy to imagine you see the shapes of people trapped under the frozen black surface. With its allusions to carnage and holocaust, it's some of his bleakest work.

As ridiculous as it sounds, Siskind's 1980s images of asphalt are much more lyrical and joyous. Such is his gift for extracting emotional content from quotidian elements. The dense black tar lines on the gorgeously speckled gray texture of the asphalt look like the gestures of a painter rather than the actions of a repair crew sealing cracks. Siskind has isolated and captured the expressive movements of their labor.

Aaron Siskind had the ability to conjure art from even forlorn and banal surroundings. He helped change the way we look at photography, the way photographers take pictures and the way we all look at the world. Just -- please -- don't go and photograph peeling paint after you see the show.

 
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