Aaron Siskind archive
Scope and Contents
Material in this archive spans more than six decades of Aaron Siskind's life. The earliest material begins with his graduation from City College of New York in 1926 and consists mainly of unpublished poetry manuscripts which reflect his early ambition to be a writer. The earliest material on his photographic career dates from the 1930's when he was active in the Photo League producing documentary photographs. The bulk of this collection dates from the late 1960's to the present. After 1970 the amount of correspondence from photographers, students, friends, and institutions is considerable. There is a nearly complete file on his exhibitions from 1939 onwards. Teaching files currently contain very little material. There are periodicals, books, and clippings with reproductions of his work as well as books by and about Siskind. There are also book galleys, maquettes, and dummies used to prepare his publications, Beans and Bacon, Pleasures and Terrors, and Places. Siskind's negative files are well organized and complete.
Series 1, correspondence, 1947-1990, contains correspondence to Siskind from artists, students, family, friends, admirers, and others dating from 1947 - 1990. Enclosures such as photographs, clippings, and announcements are present in this series
This collection is particularly strong in correspondence from students who studied under Siskind during his years at the Institute of Design and the Rhode Island School of Design (R.I.S.D.), as well as friends made during his international travels. The majority of the correspondence dates from the 1970s and 1980s with less than 10% of the material dating from before 1960. There is no correspondence dating from Siskind's years with the Photo League or the Institute of Design. There is no correspondence pertaining to Siskind's early projects and publications.
The bulk of the collection consists of correspondence received by Siskind. While some lists and memoranda are included in this series, Siskind did not generate carbons or photocopies of his own writings, leaving less than 1% of the material to represent his outgoing correspondence.
The correspondence has been broken down into three subseries: greeting cards, general correspondence, selected correspondence. The selected correspondence has been cross referenced by correspondent and institution, for example, Szarkowski, John see also Museum of Modern Art.
Series 2, exhibition and auction files, 1939-1990, contains exhibition announcements, brochures, checklists, reviews, catalogs, clippings, and other items relating to exhibitions. The amount of material on each exhibition varies greatly. Most of Siskind's exhibitions are documented. An asterisk (*) alongside the entry in the inventory indicates that only the announcement is on file.
Series 3, writings, 1924-1960, includes published and unpublished writings by Siskind in the form of typed and handwritten manuscripts of poetry and expositional writing on photography. The poetry, written during his years at the College of the City of New York, appears in a variety of manuscripts and many of the works tend to be duplicated.
Series 4, biographical materials, 1926-1990, contains chronologies, bibliographies, interviews, awards, appointment calendars, a scrapbook, passports, and other documents dating from the mid-1920s through 1990. Audio-visual materials including audio and video taped interviews are included in this series. Totaling 8 audio cassettes, 3 video cassettes, 2 films and 1 film strip. See also the Carl Chiarenza Archive (AG87) for extensive interviews on audio tapes with Siskind.
Series 5, activity files, 1939-1990, contains materials related to Siskind's activities as a photographer and teacher. Included are certificates of membership to a variety of organizations. This series contains material pertaining to his involvement with the Photo League and includes meeting minutes, advertisements, clippings, and press releases. Subseries divisions include miscellaneous reference materials which related to subjects of general interest to Siskind, shows both curated and juried by Siskind, lectures given by Siskind throughout his career, teaching materials, and special projects or events in which he took part. In the subseries pertaining to lectures an asterisk (*) alongside the entry in the inventory indicates that only the announcement is on file.
Series 6, photographic materials, include negatives, contact sheets, proof prints, portraits of Siskind.
Series 7, publication files, circa 1939-1990, contains books by or about Siskind, book design materials, portfolios, and posters. The major publishing endeavors of Siskind's career, including Beans and Bacon, (ca. 1939), Places (1976), Harlem Document (1981) and Pleasures and Terrors (1983) are well represented. The subseries of illustrative material contains books, book jackets, album sleeves, and calendars by friends and associates of Siskind to which he lent his work. See also AG87, Carl Chiarenza Archive, for material pertaining to the publication of Pleasures and Terrors.
Series 8, personal library, 1945-1990, contains books, magazines, and clippings containing photographs by Siskind, biographical information about Siskind [see also Biographical Files subseries Interviews] and reviews of his books.
Series 9, business files, circa 1965-1991, contains material that relates to Siskind's career as a photographer and artist. Included are Light Gallery exhibitions, print sales and loan receipts, and materials which resulted from his daily activities (e.g., travel, utility, automobile, property and investment records). Also included is a subseries containing accounts and correspondence regarding the institutionalization of Sidonie Siskind.
Series 10, memorabilia, 1969-1991, contains miscellaneous objects retained by Siskind for their personal value, including plaques, medals and academic robes.
- circa 1925-1991
Language of Materials
Material in English
Conditions Governing Access
To access materials from this collection, please contact CCP-RefDesk@email.arizona.edu
Conditions Governing Access
The negatives in boxes 80 through 103 are currently inaccessible due to renovations in CCP's cold storage facility. Negatives will be accessible once the renovation is complete and the negative boxes have been transferred to the new frozen storage space. The estimated date of availability is mid-year of 2023, although not guaranteed. Please be sure to email CCP-RefDesk@email.arizona.edu with any questions or for updates.
Conditions Governing Use
It is the responsibility of the user to obtain permission from the copyright owner (which could be the institution, the creator of the record, the author or his/her transferees, heirs, legates or literary executors) prior to any copyright-protected uses of the collection.
The user agrees to indemnify, defend, and hold harmless the Arizona Board of Regents, the University of Arizona, Center of Creative Photography, including its officers, employees, and agents, from and against all claims made relating to copyright or other intellectual property infringement
Aaron Siskind (United States, 1903-1991) has been called an abstract photographer and, indeed, many of his photographs feature subjects that are not easily identifiable. His photography, however, is not purely abstract. Rather, Siskind photographed recognizable places and things in ways that created a new means of communicating ideas, feelings, and perspectives on life and history. His innovation earned him a major place in the history of photography.
Siskind studied literature at the City University of New York and intended to become a poet. In the early 1930s, while on vacation from his job as a public school English teacher, he began photographing with a camera he had been given as a gift by his father-in-law for recording the sights on his honeymoon. A world opened up for him, and he became an avid and artistically ambitious photographer whose long career was influential through both his art and his teaching.
Siskind began his serious photography during the years of the Great Depression when many artists depicted poverty and social woes. He joined the Film and Photo League in New York and in 1936 formed a subgroup of the League called the Feature Group whose purpose was the collective production of documentary photographic essays. Along with other group members, Siskind produced the “Harlem Document,” his most famous documentary series, which focused human interest on the social, political, and economic conditions of Harlem and its residents.
In the 1940s, Siskind’s photographic interests moved away from socially centered, literal documentary works toward the more formal, poetic, conceptual images for which he became internationally renowned. This shift from document to metaphor embodied images of weathered fragments and textured surfaces through which he explored ideas of decay, fragmentation, and regeneration. He created pictures by closing in on his subjects, framing out distracting elements to enhance the emotional sense or allusive aspect he found compelling. Later he focused on surfaces to further condense the energies of splashed paint, graffiti marks and crumbling materials. In his late work he focused on natural formations -- tree trunks and lava fields -- where he isolated expressive figural forms.
Siskind was an explorer of the visual world, and as he traveled he created pictures he hoped would express enduring truths about human experience. His work offered an important model for other photographers who wanted to communicate personal ideas by constructing compositions from the outside world rather than documenting poignant events. Siskind taught at Chicago’s Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology (1951-1971) and the Rhode Island School of Design (1971–1976) and, along with his friend and colleague Harry Callahan, was a major influence on succeeding generations of students.
Along with Ansel Adams, Wynn Bullock, Harry Callahan, and Frederick Sommer, Siskind was one of the founding photographers whose archives established the Center for Creative Photography in 1975. The Siskind Archive includes 900 fine prints, all of his negatives, and many contact prints. It also includes correspondence; handwritten drafts of writings; exhibition, business, and publication files; and taped interviews.
50 Linear Feet
Metadata Rights Declarations
- License: This record is made available under an Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International Creative Commons license.
Papers, photographic materials, audio-visual materials, and memorabilia, ca. 1925 - 1991, of Aaron Siskind (1903 - 1991), photographer and teacher. Includes correspondence; handwritten and typed drafts of writings; exhibition and business files; publications files including book dummies, galleys, proof prints, etc.; photographic materials including contact sheets, negatives, work prints, and transparencies; audio/visual material including film, video, and audio interviews; and memorabilia relating to his career
This collection has been designated Archive Group AG30. The materials have been divided first into boxes and then into folders, thus, AG 30:2/1 indicates the first folder in the second box of the archive. The Siskind Archive has been organized according to the following outline:
Series 1: Correspondence
- Subseries 1: Greeting cards
- Subseries 2: General correspondence
- Subseries 3: Selected correspondence
Series 2: Exhibition and auction files
Series 3: Writings
Series 4: Biographical files
- Sub-series 1: Bibliographies and chronologies
- Sub-series 2: Interviews
- Sub-series 3: Awards
- Sub-series 4: Other materials
- Sub-series 5: Calendars
- Sub-series 6: Audiovisual materials
Series 5: Activity Files
- Sub-series 1: Exhibitions curated by Siskind
- Sub-series 2: Exhibitions/ contests juried by Siskind
- Sub-series 3: Lectures
- Sub-series 4: Memberships
- Sub-series 5: Fellowship applications
- Sub-series 6: Fellowship applications reviewed
- Sub-series 7: Fellowship applications, miscellaneous
- Sub-series 8: Teaching
- Sub-series 9: Technical literature
- Sub-series 10: Miscellaneous materials
Series 6: Photographic materials
- Sub-series 1: Proof prints
- Sub-series 2: Contact prints
- Sub-series 3: Contact sheets
- Sub-series 4: Negatives
- Sub-series 5: Transparencies
- Sub-series 6: Photomechanical reproduction materials
- Sub-series 7: Photographs by other artists
Series 7: Publication files
- Sub-series 1: Books by or about Siskind
- Sub-series 2: Book design materials
- Sub-series 3: Illustrative materials
- Sub-series 4: Portfolios
- Sub-series 5: Posters
Series 8: Personal Library
- Sub-series 1: Books, complete issues
- Sub-series 2: Book fragments
- Sub-series 3: Clippings
- Sub-series 4: Periodicals
- Sub-series 5: Posters
Series 9: Business files
- Sub-series 1: Misc. business files
- Sub-series 2: Light Gallery files
- Sub-series 3: Sidonie Siskind files
Series 10: Memorabilia
This collection was purchased by the Center for Creative Photography from Aaron Siskind in 1975. Over the years, Siskind sent many shipments of materials, sometimes amounting to as many as 6-8 boxes each year. After his death, a final shipment of 66 boxes arrived in June 1992. This acquisition contained the majority of his negatives in addition to some personal papers.
Negatives have been isolated from the collection and are stored in cold storage for preservation. Please contact an archivist at least one week in advance if access is needed.
Original arrangement by David Peters and Robert Sorgenfrei, 1984
Revised May 1986.
Final arrangement and description by Louise Stover, Sept. 1991-May 1992.
Updates added: October 2004; March 2008; October 2008.
Finding aid updated by Alexis Peregoy in July, 2019.
- Museum of Modern Art (New York, N.Y.). Department of Film (Organization)
- Aaron Siskind archive, circa 1925-1991
- Finding aid created by CCP Archives Staff
- © 2019
- Description rules
- Finding Aid Based On Dacs (Describing Archives: A Content Standard)
- Language of description
- Script of description
- Language of description note
- Finding aid encoded in English