Urban Landscape and Place

While reading Gohlke’s writings about Landscape and Place, I recalled that I had another book in my stacks also titled Place, by Aaron Siskind. Siskind’s book was published by Light Gallery in 1976 and had his photographs mostly from the early 1970’s, but the Introduction by Thomas Hess was very interesting regarding the concepts of Landscape and Place.

In the mid-1970’s the use of Urban Landscape had not crept into the lexicon, and the use of the word Landscape was generic to all photographs taken in nature, e.g. Weston, Adams, Caponigro. And Siskind was the prototype modern urban photographer who was working on capturing the essence of the Place.

So where does this lead us today? We can trace our current perceptions from those estabilished before where we are now, as an evolution of understanding and aesthetics. Hess writes that Siskind in the 1930’s, as a member of the New York Photo League, came to know the work of Walker Evans and formed a group to explore the aesthetics of documentary photography.  I think that you can trace the current concept of urban photography further back to Atget and his photographs in Paris in the early twenth century. Siskind’s urban photograph has also been credited as being very influencial to the painters de Kooning and Franz Klein, two contemporaries in the 1940’s who were also concerned with similar concepts as Siskind.

Does this not look familar? Siskind beleived that documenary photography should be objective, restrained, matter of fact, balanced, careful, avoiding the easy poetics of artiness and ‘irrelevant’ beauty.

Hess stated that Siskind was attempting to continue the earlier traditions of Brady, O’Sullivan and Atget and the current champions of Evans and Abbott. The documentary photograph attempts to arrive at a ‘truth’ through an accumulation of evidence. The documentary photographer comes with the poise of a cool, objective, studious observer, a James Joyce with a tripod instead of a walking stick.

Hess also notes that Suskind would find, then return to a motif over and over again. This was considered a serial documentary series. The serial drama concerns small changes, critical shifts, each version informs the next one, shapes become luminous with meaning. (which coincides with my understanding of going deep versus wide).

A lot of what I read about what makes a great (urban) landscape photograph today, inclusive of Contemporary, seems to find its roots in what Aaron Siskind was attempting to grapple with in the mid-1930s, and what was then considered documentary photography.

Best regards, Doug

BTW Hess also writes that Suskind, much like Minor White, thought of the scale (size) of a photograph is geared to a ‘normal’ size and ‘usual’ shape, something that you can hold in your hand and read like a poem.

Also, I found this softcover book in the remainder rack back in the early 1980’s, list price was $15.00 USD, my price was $1.29 and is 112 pages, black and white, and 10-1/2 x 11-1/2″. nice.


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