The Pleasures and Terrors of Levitation

Aaron Siskind, Pleasures and Terrors of Levitation #37 (1953)

Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s Aaron Siskind took hundreds of photographs of young men jumping into a lake in Chicago. Siskind titled the eventual series The pleasures and terrors of levitation. There is only one figure per photograph, caught in the process of contorting their body in the air before they hit the water. Some curl themselves up into an orb, others spread their arms with a cartoonish flapping, there are still more who have turned themselves upside-down, looking meteoric and weightier than their suspended counterparts. Removed from any discernible context these bodies float against a plain white background, at once freefalling and fixed in space. In black and white, the shadow catches against hands, backs or faces, turning them into silhouette, whilst other parts are highlighted, the arch of a foot, tensed shoulder blades thick with muscle, or the curve of a back showing a line of ribs.

I am reminded of Siskind’s series as I look out my window this hot afternoon and see a group of kids. I live in a block of flats immediately above an old reservoir. No longer needed for drinking water, it is used as a sailing and kayak centre and, in the summer months only, by outdoor swimmers. It is all closed off for the moment, but occasionally this group of teenagers manage to break in, either by jumping over the fence or shimmying through a hole in it. They lie supine on the jetty, where the boats would usually be hauled in, or else on the water’s bank, where the grass is now thick and knotted. They have been browned by the sun and are a tangle of not quite grown into legs and arms. With school’s shut and being too old to need the supervision of their parents, these young adults are existing in a world that is getting bigger rather than smaller. Instead of everything closing down, I see in their trespass an opening up, an exploring of new spaces that once felt familiar.

Aaron Siskind, Pleasures and Terrors of Levitation #474 (1954)

Like many, I feel as if I am living in a strangely abstracted time. I have been furloughed and am not working, there is no need for me to leave the house; in fact it is actively discouraged. The days are stretching out languidly, but I can’t seem to shake the feeling that I should be doing something: reading, making, writing or learning. The neatly packaged gift of time feels more like a burden. Even out of work, I feel a pressure to produce, but this want is tied to fear rather than pleasure, as if creating validates my new sedentary existence, as if my output is something that will still be measured against others. As if, afterwards, I will be able to prove that I was one of those who achieved something in the current circumstances, rather than letting it slip away.

Interviewed by The New Yorker in 2013, Charles Traub, photographer and president of the Aaron Siskind Foundation, described Siskind’s series as a “portrayal of freedom and relief from the formalities and rigor of the city”. The comment suggests that the divers are a representation of pure joy, that in those afternoons spent by the water they were able to forget something of their fixed realities, whatever that was for them. But Siskind’s title implies that these photographs weren’t only about the delight found in freedom; letting go can also be terrifying. To levitate is also to take part in something mystical or magical; it is to mess with those forces that are trying to keep you very much fixed to the ground.

The teenagers by the reservoir are taking huge leaping bounds down the jetty. They are hurling themselves into the air with the same wild abandon as Siskind’s divers, far away from the disapproving stares of the high-rises above them. The high-rises that say: you are not supposed to be in there. With huge whooping shouts they call to each other like gulls, and their laughter peels across the water. In these suspended moments, they are not worrying about the heaviness or inelegance of their bodies; they are unfurling them, making them into star-shapes or tightly wound cannonballs. Neither are they worried about that invisible, shifting thing, there in the twisting reeds, threatening to grab them by the ankle. To think with fear for too long would mean forgoing the leap altogether and staying put and, to do so, would only mean that things will continue as they always were.

I am not able to fully shake off these heavy feelings, but I can do less. I can stretch out this endless present even further, to test its limits. I can treat this time like the middle of a summer holiday from school, when an itching boredom begins to settle in. I can take pleasure in the stifled luxurious boredom of doing nothing. In keeping the body still and the mind blank, I can suspend myself in space and attempt the impossible; I can levitate.

Essay writer and arts professional living in London. Interests include existentialism, photography and cycling. Get in touch if you'd like me to write for you!

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