The Ambiguity of a Photograph, Part 1: Aesthetic Historical Documents

Photographs are historical documents. They capture a split second of a particular moment. A slice of life.

A photograph doesn’t lie.

Well, that’s not always true; especially in the age of Instagram filters and Photoshop. The history of the medium is filled with photographers who obsessively edited, altered, and cropped their images. In the darkroom and today on computers, light and shadow can be manipulated until the photographer is satisfied. Even what photographers choose to capture and print is very selective. One only has to look at the contact sheets of some of the most famous photographers to see the countless images that were left unaltered and never printed.

siskind_Chicago 30

Aaron Siskind, Chicago 30, 1949. Gelatin silver print, 13 3/4 x 7 1/2 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Gift of the Phillips Contemporaries, 2004

I first encountered Aaron Siskind’s Chicago 30 (1949) a few weeks ago. Currently located in the original house of the museum, the work sits above one of the old tiled fireplaces. First drawn to the dramatic contrast of black and white, I marveled at the work’s ability to capture and hold my attention. Photography always grabs me, but usually what I like about the medium is the ability to place the content within a time or a place. This photo is removed from all context. It is unclear what has been photographed by Siskind. The only hint of context is the title, Chicago 30.

In the early years of his career, Siskind engaged with traditional documentary photography, often through a socially engaged lens. One of Siskind’s most well-known projects is the Harlem Document. The project focuses on documentation, but Siskind’s eye for artistry is present particularly in one of his most famous works, Savoy Dancers.

Compared to his documentary work and given its lack of context and content, can Chicago 30 be considered a historical document? This photograph captures what Siskind saw through his camera lens, but we, the viewer, don’t know or understand what he saw. The work can be considered documentation of a particular moment in Siskind’s life, but without concrete information and context, the viewer is left only with the aesthetics of the photograph.

This is a multi-part blog post; check back next week for Part 2.

Emma Kennedy, Marketing & Communications Intern

Dueling Pac-Men

In conjunction with recently opened Karel Appel: A Gesture of Color, Marketing and Communications Intern Olivia Bensimon responds to one of the works of art featured in the exhibition.

Appel_Floating Like the Wind

Karel Appel, Floating like the Wind, 1975. Oil on canvas, 78 3/4 x 102 3/4 in. Private Collection

What struck me first when I saw this painting was how much it reminded me of two people bickering. The yellow Pac-Man-like shape on the right has its mouth open, as if it was yelling, whereas the red Pac-Man-like shape on the left seems scared or disgruntled. The surrounding shapes might be identified as legs and arms, but I see these “faces” as the focal point. Letting my mind wander, I begin to imagine a more full story for these two characters: the red shape has been taking a nap in some sort of suit, with a blue shirt, white pants, and black shoes. The yellow shape walks in to see the the other lounging around and begins to yell and shake its arms above its head. That’s when the red shape wakes up, confused and also very sleepy.

The title of this painting, Floating like the Wind, could be interpreted in many different ways, but what comes to my mind is that the emotions articulated in the painting are floating like the wind—the dark blue representing sleepiness, the black and red pouring out of the yellow shape’s mouth representing anger and frustration.

Olivia Bensimon, Marketing & Communications Intern

The Dancing Trees of Milton Avery’s Imagination

Avery_Dancing Trees

Milton Avery, Dancing Trees, 1960. Oil on canvas, 52 x 66 in. Paul G. Allen Family Collection © 2015 Milton Avery Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

In his mid-seventies, Milton Avery brought decades of visual experience to bear on his perceptions of the world and an inclination toward simplification that may have intensified with his advancing age. At times, the artist’s late paintings veer so close to pure abstraction that only their titles enable the viewer to recognize the scene that has stirred Avery’s imagination. Such is the case here: three monumental cones swaying in the wind take flight as trees en pointe, their girth making for a comic ballet.

A few weeks ago, prompted by a free-writing exercise based around this piece, we asked visitors to Seeing Nature and social media followers what they saw in this work without providing the title. Answers included floating pizza slices, icebergs, a gnome village, stingrays, and more. What do you see?