At the Crossroads of American Photography: Callahan, Siskind, Sommer

January 31 - May 13, 2009


Introductory wall panel for the exhibition

At the Crossroads of American Photography: Callahan, Siskind, Sommer examines the aesthetic interrelationship of three photographers who helped define the course of American photography: Harry Callahan, Aaron Siskind and Frederick Sommer. Although each has been honored with individual museum retrospectives, this is the first full comparison of their work and the revolutionary exchange of ideas about photography, abstraction and metaphor among these three friends. It brings to light their shared interest in chance as an artistic process, the expressive potential of photographic "found" objects and "collage," experimental abstraction and the continued evolution of a specifically photographic visual language.

Self-taught photographers, Callahan, Siskind and Sommer all explored cutting-edge stylistic and conceptual frameworks of avant-garde painting such as gesture, spontaneity and experimentation and translated them into photography. The artists' close associations with other "fine art" movements -- Callahan with the New Bauhaus, Siskind with Abstract Expressionism and Sommer with the tenets of Surrealism -- shaped photography at this seminal time, before the emergence of a market for photography and before widespread critical acceptance of the medium.

For their livelihood, Callahan, Siskind and Sommer depended more upon their teaching salary than print sales. They each helped build a powerful national community of peers and photographic educators at the college level. The students they mentored at the Institute of Design, Chicago, and the Rhode Island Institute of Design, Providence, constitute the intellectual genealogy of American photography.

These photographs shift between radically different forms while maintaining an undercurrent of interest in abstraction, the larger patterns and rhythms that serve as metaphors for universal ideas within specific objects. The images point to something beyond the subject photographed. They stem from a profound understanding that photography does not merely record what is in front of the camera but can create a new experience that reflects the human condition. Abstraction is used as a means to an end -- a method to isolate the relationships of objects -- which will, in turn, reflect the artist's inner world. As Siskind explained in 1945: "For the first time in my life subject matter, as such, had ceased to be of primary importance. Instead, I found myself involved in the relationships of these objects, so much so that these pictures turned out to be deeply moving and personal experiences."

Each artist experimented with the geometric abstraction of the New Bauhaus, reducing architecture and urban façades to their primary form and using compositional tension to frame the image. They explored walls, frayed posters, peeling paint and weather-worn boards-painterly abstractions that appear intentionally arranged. They adapted the gestures associated with Abstract Expressionist painters, manipulating light instead of paint. Like the Surrealists, they experimented with collage and montage of found and arranged objects; doll parts, weeds and letters on a wall, isolated from their contextual meaning, become hieroglyphics. These innovative and pioneering artists created a bridge between straight photography in the middle of the twentieth century and experimental, hybrid approaches contemporary artists bring to the medium today. Callahan, Siskind and Sommer helped to establish photography itself as an art form that, like earlier modes of expression, is fully capable of embracing and exploring issues at the heart of vanguard art.

The exhibition is accompanied by a 172-page catalogue published in conjunction with Radius Books and available in the museum store.

La información en este panel está disponible en español en el mostrador de información.


(above: Aaron Siskind, Martha's Vineyard IIIb, 1954, gelatin-silver print,13 11/16 x 17 13/16 inches, Collection of Barbara and Gene Polk, Prescott, Arizona.© Aaron Siskind Foundation, Courtesy Silverstein Gallery, New York.)

(above:Aaron Siskind, North Carolina 30, 1951, gelatin-silver print,13 1/16 x 9 3/4 inches, Collection of Barbara and Gene Polk, Prescott, Arizona. © Aaron Siskind Foundation, Courtesy Silverstein Gallery, New York.)

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