JTF (just the facts): A total of 25 black and white photographs, alternately framed in black/white and matted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space and the office area. All of the works are vintage gelatin silver prints, made between 1944 and 1970. Physical sizes range from roughly 8×8 to 24×20 inches (or reverse) and no edition information was provided. (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: The typical way we measure the accomplishments of a photographer is to gather together his or her consensus best 10, 20, or even 50 images and then take a look at what those pictures tell us about that artist. This greatest hits method effectively skims the cream off the top, forcing us to consider the key images that define a career.
But a different measure of mastery might also be calculated by taking that same photographer’s consensus best 100, 200, or even 500 images and moving them aside, looking then at the quality of the remaining batch of works that are left behind. I’m not talking about examining the obvious misfires, outtakes, or contact sheet rejects, but exploring the actual finished works that never made it into any monographs or publications, that weren’t selected for exhibitions, and that weren’t ever even really shown, but have languished in storage boxes only to be rediscovered by intrepid curators and gallerists years later.
By this unorthodox, some might say backward, measure, Aaron Siskind is one of the most consistently impressive photographers of the 20th century. While the names of certain prolific (and prolifically talented) photographers certainly jump to mind when applying this depth standard (Lee Friedlander would be one, William Eggleston another), Siskind seems to have had the astonishing ability to turn found arrangements of dripped paint and smudged walls into single frame symphonies. When we come across one of these abstractions, even if we have never seen it before, we instantly recognize it as having been made by Siskind, and usually find a sense of intelligence and balance that defies easy explanation. No one, before or since, has done more with this humble, overlooked subject matter than Siskind.
This show of vintage Siskind rarities is in essence built upon this principle of greatness to be found deep in the archive. While a handful of the works on view here made it into Carl Chiarenza’s 1982 monograph on Siskind, most have no such provenance – they are simply extremely well crafted photographs. Made in Chicago, or New York, or Rome, or Mexico, or even further afield, the works crop part of a wall down into a controlled expression, deftly balancing lights and darks, and using the gestural motion of a paint squiggle, the fragmented letters of a torn poster, or the textural uncertainty of a supporting wall to build an integrated composition. Some introduce hard edged geometries and graphic shapes like circles and rectangles, others revel in papery peeling, and still others celebrate the lively motion of paint, whether it be stylized graffiti or watery residue. Each one of these images is like a discovery, each a picture we have no history with that still manages to impress and delight us.
And while the compositional formula is much more rigid, the same conclusion can largely be drawn with Siskind’s floating silhouetted divers. While a few notable “poses” (if we can call these movements that) stick out and have been singled out as the “best”, so many of the literally hundreds of photographs Siskind made in this series succeed, especially when they are hung in grids and groups and allowed to interact with each other. It seems this subject had nearly infinite modes of subtle variation, each one something like ballet, a split second freeze frame of jumping/falling filled with vulnerability and grace.
In the end, this show doesn’t add to our collective knowledge about Siskind, or further our understanding of how he was so consistently brilliant over so long a period of time. It is simply an undeniable reminder that Siskind still matters, and for those who have overlooked Siskind in the chase to find the new, an admonishment to rediscover the superlative depth to be found in the photographic masters we think we already know.
Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced between $12000 and $50000. Siskind’s prints (both vintage and later) are regularly available in the secondary markets, with recent prices ranging from $1000 to $73000, with later prints generally under $10000.