Today’s post comes from Deborah Steinberg, Class of 2014 and Art Center Intern.

Aaron Siskind(American 1903-1991)Homage to Franz Kline: Rome 83, 1973 Gelatin silver print Gift of Frances F. L. Beatty, class of 1970, in honor of Linda Nochlin Pommer, class of 1951 1984.51.1.e

Tyrone Simpson, Associate Professor of English, stated in this week’s Artful Dodger that, “Urban image making is dangerous and threatening for me,” because it calcifies what people come to think about urban experience. Both Simpson’s book project, Ghetto Images in Twentieth Century American Literature, and the several Aaron Siskind photographs that were the subject of his talk deal explicitly with the social and aesthetic issues of documenting urban space. Simpson gave a brief history of Aaron Siskind and discussed his own experiences with the artist. He described how he first came across Siskind’s Haarlem: A Document – a collection of documentary and realist images from the 1930s that capture both private and public spaces.

As a result of the New Deal, Siskind and like-minded artists were commissioned to create a hymn to the people of sorts. There was a concern on the artist’s part to portray of the social reality at the time, yet also wrestle with the fact that this social reality is uncapturable. Siskind tried to address this by turning to expressionism, by producing non-narrative images, ones that are not “over determined” as Simpson described. His art became much more abstract, a progression which viewers can see in the images that Simpson chose for the talk.

Professor Simpson argued that when we hear things about urban space, we already have images in our personal archives, shaped by our feelings and identities. To illustrate this, he asked how visitors felt about three Siskind photographs. People discussed what the images evoked for them, with responses that ranged from paintings, to things in their work, to emotions. Since the group was generally drawn to the third, most abstract of the photographs, viewers looked more closely at a Siskind portfolio, “Homage to Franz Klein” from which the abstract photograph had come. It was a wonderful opportunity to engage with the photographs that the Art Center has to offer and to hear an analysis from a historical and urban studies perspective.