Aaron Siskind - An Appreciation

An Appreciation, 1991 | “The best memory of the celebration is the cake.” Those who enter this gallery hardly need to be reminded of Aaron Siskind’s contributions to Photography and Art. Therefore, I celebrate him here, as a friend. I am not alone in my memories as Aaron counted among his colleagues an unusually large extended family of admirers. All of us who keep him in our hearts are fortunate that our mourning of his loss is offset by the knowledge that he lived in the fullest of ways and died simply and peacefully.

Aaron’s life was not an uncomplicated one; he lived it as he felt it. He once described a good photograph as, “a balance of continuing tensions.” Such was the essence of his own vitality. It was in his creative drive to find order in the commonplace and beauty in simplicity.
I did not know him in what he referred to as the “old days”, but I knew him for a long time. My first encounter, during the rage of an earlier war, was when I first registered for classes at the Institute of Design. I had not seen the famed photographer before. I was sure he was going to be a figure as grand and as elegant as his photographs. When I asked the little man eating at the registration desk, where I could find Aaron Siskind, he replied, “Your looking at him, Bud, or at least I think I’m me. Would you like a piece ofdeliiicious cake?” The offer was irresistible. The sensuality and generosity of his manner overwhelmed the almost comic figure of the “old man” in the Harris tweed jacket with the self-inflicted coffee spotted shirt.

Undoubtedly, Aaron Siskind was one of photography’s greatest teachers. Ironically, I don’t remember any of his critique strategies. I can still feel the excitement of his Wednesday morning class, and how each of the students anxiously awaited his glance at our work and one of his three stock responses: Silence; “What else do you do?”; or the coveted, “It’s a beauty!” He dismissed the longwinded, the ideological and imitative. He praised energy and ideas.

Aaron did his best teaching at the Belden coffee shop, where we ate the worst cake and learned the best lessons. It was here that he revealed his humanism. He delighted in the observation of all the characters around us and catalogued their foibles without judging them. He admired the efficiency and steadfastness of the waitress who worked there for years and the flamboyant gestures of the overbearing owner. Most of all, he liked watching the young people holding hands in the booths. How many times did I hear him say, “Aren’t they marvelous?” The “old man” always ate too much, complained, popped a few Gelusils, and left the now legendary, outrageous tip.

I accompanied him when he returned to the Belden after three years of living in Providence. The same stoic waitress brought him his cake and overly sugared coffee before the request left his lips. “You still driving?” she asked. “What do you mean?” Aaron indignantly replied. “You’re a cab driver, aren’t you? I always used to see you looking at folks around here. You can always spot a cabby by his eyes.”

I drove with Aaron through many poetic cities that captured his imagination. He did a lot of looking in places like Chosia, Makenes, Jalapa, Recife, Bath and the like. He loved to drive through the busiest and often most mundane sections of cities. He skipped the grand palaces of culture; the important stops were the quarters where he could observe the ebb and flow of ordinary life. Aaron frequented that same coffee shop wherever he went. It was best when it had an outdoor table overlooking the marketplace and when they served chocolate cake. This atmosphere nourished his eyes and fed the awesome inner solitude of his wonderful emotive works. Even when he shouldn’t have, he traveled; hoping that the next stop would be just like the last one he visited, only better.

Before his death, I visited Aaron in a Providence hospital. As I attempted to comfort him with platitudes, he smiled at my own discomfort and limericked:There once was a man from Pawtucket,Who as fate would have, couldn’t luck it.

He climbed a great wall and had a big fall. Broke his leg, and said Aw Fuck it!Undaunted, he always relieved the moment with comedy. I think he was the most civilized man I ever met.