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Chicago, 1951-52
Photograph by Aaron Siskind


I was beginning to write a few words about Aaron Siskind at seventy-five when the phone rang. On the other end was that nonpareil typographer and designer from Taloga, Oklahoma, Alvin Doyle Moore. He said: “I’ll tell you something you don’t know. Art Sinsabaugh tells me that Siskind had no running water in his darkroom in Chicago. . . And I said to Art, ‘That just means that if you’re really good, you can do it anywhere—even on the ground with a stick.’”

I flew into Kennedy from Heathrow on last December 3, just in order to join a distinguished company in toasting Aaron with champagne at midnight: it would be his seventy-fifth birthday. I had not seen him in ten years, not since Chicago. Older, certainly, with a bit of Buddhistic paunch, but much the same man I had come to revere back in 1951 at Black Mountain College.

Then, he was simply introduced to me as a friend of Harry Callahan’s from New York; an associate of the painters Kline and de Kooning and the abstract expressionists. Over the summer I had much of his counsel in the darkroom as he taught me the rudiments of what to do with a Rollei. And those of us fortunate to be in nether Buncombe County, North Carolina, then (Charles Olson, Dan Rice, Lou Harrison, Joel Oppenheimer, Fielding Dawson, Ben Shahn, Katherine Litz, Francine du Plessix Gray, to name a few) spent many a long evening down at Ma Peak’s Tavern, three miles from the college, drinking beer and listening to the lore that Siskind and Callahan commanded between them. Edward Dahlberg once said: “Literature is the way we ripen ourselves by conversation.” The beer joint in Hicksville, USA, should never be underestimated. You would not have done better at the Deux Magots or the Café Flore in Paris that summer. And I somehow doubt that you would have found Brassaï and Cartier-Bresson there amidst the too-many tourists. Besides, in Siskind and Callahan, we had two American pioneers who were photographing Chicago, Martha’s Vineyard, and Harlan County, Kentucky, in ways no one had seen before. Were they not precisely on another Black Mountain poet’s wavelength?

All my favorite avuncular adjectives trot forth when I think about (i.e., have feelings about) Aaron: kindly, astute, enthusiastic, loyal, masterly. He wears his years more lightly than in the SX-70 snaps I did of him that midnight where he looks like the oldest tragedian of the Yiddish theater—"Jesus, you think I’m mellow? I’m so mellow I’m rotten!”

As for the exhibition of work from 1976 and 1977 that Light Gallery put on to mark Siskind’s birthday, what is there to say except that it was one of the great, ennobling, wondrous things I have ever seen. You could spend hours, days, or years in front of any particular print gerting its savor, fath?oming how a man’s unique feelings can be limned on walls and in stones, from Nantucket to Rome to Lima to Paris. A show so good one can hardly bear to look at it. I wrote down Peru 349, Peru 307, Peru 210, Peru 208, Peru 465; Paris 50; Senagalia 28; and the set of nine prints from Cusco— those are quite enough in my three days. There have been few photographers in the history of the craft with equal gifts, with such pictorial quality from one work to another over the decades. If we go to painting, there is Pierre Bonnard, conspicuously—and Vuillard. And Monet, at Giverny. In America, one thinks of Grant Wood and Richard Diebenkorn; well, I think of Wood and Diebenkorn—you’re on your own to find the odd pairings.

I’ve stuck to the adjectives of old-fashioned poetical virtue to write of Aaron Siskind. Except for one or two pieces by Tom Hess, most magazine writing about Siskind has been cold and technocratic. You know the words:anthropomorphic, animistic, typology, methodology, perceptual ambiguity—about as welcome as a Christmas card from the IRS or another Committee to Reelect Richard Nixon. Recall that Siskind and Franz Kline spoke of “dancing” and of delight. “Is not the aesthetic optimum order with the tensions continuing?” asks Siskind, with precisely the warm linguistic savvy you’d expect.

Seventy-five and better than ever. “Why not?” he asks. “What else have Igot to do?”

Highlands, North Carolina 1978 (from The Magpie's Bagpipe.)


Has there ever been a greater photographer? To ask that excessive question is not to diminish the tremendous range of Paul Strand or the depth of feeling in Stieglitz or Sudek. I merely suggest that Siskind could mount 400 prints on the wall and not show us one second-rate image. The same might be said for Pierre Bonnard and Richard Diebenkorn, both painters— I can’t think of any others.

Siskind and his Abstract Expressionist painter pals in New York (de Kooning, Kline, Tworkov, Kerkham, Vicente, Gorky) were among the first to show us that our innermost feelings can be found in the commonplace debris of the world, that they can be limned on walls and in stones and bits of ironwork. I remember a famous Siskind statement: “When you photograph a wall, you photograph a wall; when I photograph a wall, I’m photographing something else.” Namely: Aaron Siskind. He wrote to me very recently: “I still love travelling. When I visit a new country, I find old Siskind there.”

Siskind was nearly the last of my mentors. And now I’m old enough to find myself mentor to the occasional disaffected youth who wants to know about the Harry Callahans and Frederick Sommers and Art Sinsabaughs and Ralph Eugene Meatyards of this flensed world. Franz Kline and Aaron Siskind talked a lot about “dancing” in an image, and of delight. “Is not the aesthetic optimum: order, with the tensions continuing? ” asked Siskind, with precisely the warm linguistic savvy you’d expect.

Those of us who knew him miss the man enormously. Every time I see the little yellow-green finch known as the Pine Siskin, I am reminded of his somewhat (but not much) bigger Polish Uncle, Aaron. Checking siskin, it derives from the Swedish siska, a “chirper.” Others who miss him are the tender Shulamite damsels of Pawtucket, Rhode Island. No one appreciated them more. “Whudda you think keeps me luggin’ these heavy goddamn cameras around?” asked Aaron at lunch one day, tickling one of his retinue in the most cordial way possible.

Highlands 1997 (from A Palpable Elysisum.)