I thought some years ago that I could share that vision of photography but I have decided that in spite of my passion, I can’t. Maybe I am not smart enough. Maybe I am not persuasive enough. Maybe I just don’t know the right words. I don’t know what, but it never seems to be effective. So I shifted gears. It’s not that I no longer care. I am just not going to fight that battle regardless of how beneficial it might be. I still intend to write about my way of seeing. If it interests the reader fine; if it doesn’t that is also fine. And if it irritates the crap out of the reader, so be it.
A few years ago in another time I posted an article to a magazine, a list of 100 influential photographers that I thought were worth studying. Actually there were only 98 because one was my mother and another was Lord Snowdon who also photographed under his non-royal name of Anthony Armstrong Jones and got listed twice. One of the readers asked that I condense that to 5, 98 is a whole lifetime full. Without going back to the magazine I do not recall who I narrowed it down to. Besides, that would probably change with the day or the weather but I am certain that Alfred Stieglitz and Minor White would be on any short list that I would make. Among the photographers that would make the list on some days would be Aaron Siskind. Since I have had a somewhat personal experience with his work, I would like to again share that experience and the brief bio of Aaron Siskind that was published in the Time Life’s, Great Photographers.
Many years ago I saw his Pleasures and Terrors of Levitation at the Dallas Museum of Fine Art. I did not understand the photographs. I did not particularly like the photographs. As many do when they see photographs that they do not understand in a museum or gallery, I wondered, “Why?” I bought the catalogue of the show in spite of my distaste.
It took me a few years to understand the photographs. It required seeing Siskind’s previous work and an understanding how that work had lead up to ‘Levitation.’ Nothing happens in a vacuum. Life is a continuum that establishes our uniqueness. To understand anything, including photography or ourselves, requires in my opinion, understanding how it/we arrived at a particular point.
Not understanding Siskind’s ‘Levitation’ was due to my own inadequacies. Understanding did not require anything from Siskind or from Siskind’s work—it required that I grow to the point where I could understand. I could easily have walked away thinking, “What crap.” Fortunately I didn’t and today I am richer visually because I didn’t.
Dissecting a photograph into the Rule of Thirds has little to nothing to do with it. Don’t whitewash it Woodard, say what you really think. Okay, my true opinion, ABSOLUTELY nothing to do with it. That is simply doing photography-by-the-numbers as a result of a lazy approach to vision that refuses to learn to balance a composition without a mechanical aid. Wonder how many will stop reading at this point?
For the most part, amateur photographers find the history of photography boring. All they want to do is with as little effort as possible on their part to make pretty pictures like those that Joe Blow makes and gets published or gets awarded a ribbon. It bothers me when I see photographers giving up or ignoring their personal vision. It saddens me to learn that there are people taking photographs that don’t seem to even know that they have, or are allowed to have, a personal vision or know the value of their unique personal vision. It makes me want to grab a copy of Ian Robert’s Creative Authenticity and crawl under the covers. Anyway, back to Siskind, the brief bio…
In Gloucester, Mass, in the summer of 1944, Aaron Siskind experienced what can only be described as a change of vision. He had been producing still lifes—“a discarded glove, two fish heads and other commonplace objects which I found kicking around on the wharves.” He recalls. But now he looked at these items in a completely new way. “For the first time in my life.” He said, “subject matter as such had ceased to be of primary importance.” It was a total about face for Siskind. Since the 1930s he had been photographing such documentary themes as Harlem tenements and Bowery bums. Subject matter had been the whole point. Now the subject was all but unrecognizable. His close ups of stone walls and peeling posters are all surface and design, like canvases by a nonrepresentational painter. The picture itself, not the scene it shows, has become Siskind’s vehicle for conveying impact and emotion.
Indeed Siskind’s new found vision is the inevitable step after the ‘equivalents’ of Alfred Stieglitz and the ‘sequences’ of Minor White, in which forms found in nature, rendered precisely and directly with the camera, are offered as expressions of the photographer’s own state of mind. “I’m not interested in nature,” Siskind contends “I’m interested in my own nature.”
I know I could repeat this a thousand times a day and no one would pay attention. But in that last sentence, “I’m interested in my own nature” is the whole distinction between being an artist, read photographer, and a picture taker. And no one ever gets there by simply scratching their surface or imitating another.