December 4, 1903 – February 8, 1991


"Photography is a way of feeling, of touching, of loving. What you have caught on film is captured forever... it remembers little things, long after you have forgotten everything." 

- Aaron Siskind


Aaron Siskind

Aaron Siskind

Aaron Siskind was born on December 4, 1903 in New York. He was the son of Russian Jewish immigrants and the fifth of six children. After receiving his Bachelor of Social Science degree from the College of the City of New York in 1926, he went on to teach high school English in the New York public school system for 21 years. His first loves were music and poetry, but he took an interest in photography after his 1929 wedding, when he received his first camera as a honeymoon present. He began his career in photography as a documentarian in the New York Photo League in 1932. From 1936 to 1940, he oversaw the League’s Feature Group as they created documentary photo essays of political importance, fueled by a desire for social change.

On the invitation of Harry Callahan, Siskind joined the faculty of the Institute of Design in Chicago in 1951, taking over as head of the photography program in 1961, when Callahan left. Siskind and Callahan, famous for their synergy as teachers and photographers, reunited in 1971 when SIskind left the Institute of Design for the Rhode Island School of Design where Callahan then taught. Siskind continued to teach at RISD until his retirement in 1976. He traveled broadly, making multiple trips to Mexico and Italy, including a stint in Rome, funded by his 1966 John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship. 

Siskind died at age 87 in Providence, Rhode Island. The Aaron Siskind Centennial Celebration took place in 2003 and 2004, with exhibitions at more than a dozen institutions across the country, each devoted to a different period or theme of his life and work.

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Diverse Divers: Aaron Siskind Explores Psychological States

Larry Thall | July 09, 1993

Compared with literature and poetry, still photography seems a poor choice for exploring the dualities of human existence. Still, some talented photographers are able to employ the power of the lens for literal description to transform mundane subjects into images of metaphysical significance. Few, though, can match the visual alchemy of the late Aaron Siskind, who, not surprisingly, was at one time an English teacher and an aspiring poet. "Almost inevitably there are tensions in the picture, tensions between the outside world and the inside world," Siskind wrote in 1954, in a short "Art Photography" essay outlining his photographic philosophy. "For me a successful picture resolves these tensions without eliminating them." That same year, the then 50-year-old photographer, who today is best-known for his images of bits of graffiti, weathered and peeling urban walls and Massachusetts rock formations, was hard at work on an idiosyncratic series of photographs of young men diving into Lake Michigan that he'd begun the year before. The series comprises hundreds of photos.

The Museum of Contemporary Photography at Columbia College recently acquired a portfolio of 14 vintage prints from this series, titled "Pleasures and Terrors of Levitation," (known at one time as "Terrors and Pleasures of Levitation") and is showing them in an exhibition by the same name. To anyone who has played much baseball, Siskind's levitated figures, suspended in midair against a pure white sky, can bring to mind a towering pop fly. Reaching the pinnacle of its ascent, the ball appears to remain motionless for a split second before descending, as if momentarily uncertain whether inertia or gravity will determine its fate. 

Siskind's photographs, however, aren't intended as metaphors for the laws of physics, but as a visual representation of the duality of human cognition: the disparity that everyone experiences between one's inner thoughts and fears and the reality of the outer world. "The interior drama is the meaning of the exterior event," Siskind wrote in a 1945 issue of Minicam Photography, adding, "And each man is an essence and a symbol." Siskind combined, within one frame, the universal fear of falling with man's ancient quest for self-propelled flight, thus alluding to the balance we all must strike between striving for pleasure and avoiding the terror, between achievement and failure (the fear of falling becoming the fear of failing). Some of Siskind's levitated beings appear to be floating, relaxed, as if engaged in a skydiver's free fall. The bodies of others are slightly more contorted, as if they've been pushed from a precipice. How well do these outer appearances jibe with the subject's inner sensation of pleasure or terror? Just as in ordinary life, it's impossible to know.

Siskind's "Pleasures and Terrors of Levitation" photographs have been compared to some rather obscure works: a 1932 photograph by Alexander Rodchenko titled "Diving"; sculptor Ernest Trova's 1960s "Falling Man" series; and Pierre Tal-Coat's 1950s paintings of leaping figures. It seems more useful, however, to contrast Siskind's austere divers with portraits by Philippe Halsman, founder of "Jumpology." Halsman created approximately 200 commissioned portraits of famous politicians, entertainers, artists, scientists, business  leaders and athletes while they jumped, his camera and electronic flash "freezing" his subjects in midair. Halsman theorized that a person cannot simultaneously control the muscles of both face and limbs. Therefore, the sudden exertion required by jumping results in the subject dropping his self-conscious mask, thus revealing the true inner self. Today, "jump" portraits by Halsman, who died in 1979, still appear clever and, in some instances, funny. Yet their value  appears intrinsically linked to the fame of the jumpers. When viewers no longer recognize Carol Channing or the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, the photographs will be relegated to the status of curiosities. Not so for the "Pleasures and Terrors of Levitation." The novelist Stephen Vizinczey writes that literature's great figures all write in "the eternal present tense." Siskind's images can be said to embody the eternal present tense as well. For as long as human beings continue to speculate about the nature of their existence, his images seem destined to retain their initial vitality. Though the work and life of Siskind, who died in 1991, have received voluminous attention, his "Pleasures and Terrors of Levitation" series has received relatively scant critical attention. Still, a direct aesthetic connection between this series and his famous Martha's Vineyard rock studies, made during the same period, is clear. 

Beyond his photographs, Siskind is also known for his role as a teacher. Together with Harry Callahan and others who taught at the Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology during the '50s, '60s and early '70s, Siskind, the chairman of the photography department from 1961 to 1971, influenced a generation of young photographers, including such noted Chicago-area artist-teachers as Barbara Crane, Joseph Jachna and Kenneth Josephson.A friend to many of the first-generation abstract impressionists, Siskind has also been credited with influencing their painting. Reportedly, Willem de Kooning kept a Siskind photograph of a crumpled, stained piece of waste paper on the sidewalk close at hand as he worked on his famous "Women" series.


1903: Born December 4th, New York City.

1915-26: Educated in New York City at De Witt Clinton High School, and City College, B.S.S. in Literature.

1926-47: English instructor in New York City public school system.

1929: Married Sidonie Glatter; gets his first camera as a honeymoon gift.

1932-35: Joined the New York Film and Photo League; buys a Voigtlander Avus.

1936-41: Active in the reorganized New York Photo League. Established the Feature Group, a documentary production unit, as part of the Photo League School. Produced group and independent photo-series including: The Catholic Worker Movement; Dead End: The Bowery; The End of City Repertory Theatre; The Harlem Document; Lost Generation: The Plight of Youth Today; The Most Crowded Block in the World; Park Avenue: North and South; Sixteenth Street: A Cross-section of New York; and Tabernacle City.

1940: Published "The Feature Group" in Photo Notes.

1943-44: Created increasingly symbolic and abstract photographs based on discarded and found objects on Martha's Vineyard and in Gloucester, Massachusetts.

1945: Published "The Drama of Objects" in Minicam Photography. 
Established close and enduring ties to the artists of the New York School.

1947-49: Taught photography at Trenton Junior College, Trenton, New Jersey.

1947-51: Exhibited regularly at Charles Egan Gallery. Elaine de Kooning wrote "The Photographs of Aaron Siskind" as the introduction to a 1951 exhibition of Siskind's photographs at the gallery.

1950: Wrote "Credo" as an artist's statement for the symposium What is Modern Photography? organized by Edward Steichen at the Museum of Modern Art, New York City. Taught with Harry Callahan during the summer at Black Mountain College.

1951-71: At the invitation of Harry Callahan, Siskind joined the faculty of the Illinois Institute of Technology Institute of Design in Chicago. He was Professor of Photography until 1959, when he became Director of the Photographic Department. He led and participated in advanced student projects including: Apartment interiors of the Mies van der Rohe Lake Shore Drive Skyscrapers, A Chicago Settlement House, The Chicago Housing Authority, The Complete Architecture of Adler and Sullivan (also called the Louis Sullivan project), Details of the Human Body, The Park System of Chicago, and The Series Form. Traveled in Greece and Rome.

1956: With Harry Callahan, published "Learning Photography at the Institute of Design," in Aperture.

1959: Horizon Press published his first book, Aaron Siskind: Photographs.

1960-70: Co-editor of Choice Magazine.

1962: Invited by Nathan Lyons to the inaugural “Invitational Teaching Conference” in Rochester, NY, which became the Society for Photographic Education.

1963-64: Served as one of the first Directors of the Society for Photographic Education. Board member, Gallery of Contemporary Art, Chicago.

1965: George Eastman House published his second book, Aaron Siskind: Photographer.

1966: Recipient, John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship for Creative Arts – Photography.

1969: Named Bingham Distinguished Professor in the Humanities at the University of Louisville.
Received the Philadelphia College of Art Gold Star of Merit Award and the Rhode Island Governor's Prize for the Arts.
Founding member of the Visual Studies Workshop, Rochester.

Awarded the degree of Honorary Doctor of Arts from Columbia College in Chicago.

1971-76: Taught photography at Rhode Island School of Design.

1973: Lectured in Photography at the Carpenter Center of Harvard University.

1976: Received the National Endowment for the Arts Grant for Visual Arts in Photography.

1971-91: An established master, Siskind continues to make photographs and was published and exhibited widely.

1984: Incorporated the Aaron Siskind Foundation, charged with managing his collection of vintage photographs and supporting contemporary photography with its income.

1985: Funded the Aaron Siskind Center for Photography within the Department of Prints, Drawings and Photographs at Rhode Island College of Design.

1991: Died February 8th, in Providence RI, at 87 years old


"Aaron Siskind: Pleasures and Terrors"
Riverside, California
August 8, 2015 - January 30, 2016
Reception: November 14, 2015 6-9pm

"Aaron Siskind - L’Autre Réalité Photographique"
Montpellier, France
November 28, 2014 - February 23, 2015

"At the Crossroads of American Photography: Callahan, Siskind, Sommer" 
Scottsdale, Arizona
January 31, 2009 - May 13, 2009

Lisbon, Portugal
May 19 - July 31, 2005

Tucson, AZ
March - June 2003

Chicago, IL
July 25 - September 8, 2003

Madison, WI
September 6, 2003 - January 4, 2004

Princeton, NJ
September 9 - November 9, 2003

Cleveland, OH
September 13 - November 19, 2003

New York, NY
October 4, 2003 - February 1, 2004

Southern Seoul, Bangi-dong
(02) 418-1315
October 1 - October 31, 2003

Harlem, NY
October 15, 2003 - January 4, 2004

Houston, TX
July 3 - September 26, 2004

Washington, DC
June 12 - September 5, 2004