Roman Vishniac: The Photographer’s Lies

Laurie and Debbie say:

Roman Vishniac’s photography of pre-World War II Jewish life in Eastern Europe has stood for over fifty years as primary documents of a way of life destroyed by the Nazis. His photographs of Orthodox Jews in traditional dress, often in extreme poverty, were frequently displayed after the end of the war, when news of the concentration camps, of the slaughter of 12 million people, half of them killed for being Jewish, was deeply shocking front page news.

Religious Jewish children studying

Now, a different story has emerged. Vishniac, for publication, was not documenting Jewish life in the shtetl, the Jewish neighborhood. Instead, he was documenting a limited and controlled fraction of that life. Fortunately, he also created and preserved a much greater range of images, which his 74-year-old daughter still had when a researcher came to her door.

.. the [International Center for Photography] will not only be acquiring Vishniac’s entire life’s work; … it is also inheriting a fascinating set of ambiguities and unanswered questions — all unexpectedly uncovered by a 34-year-old curator named Maya Benton. As Benton has discovered, Vishniac released, over the course of a five-decade career, an uncommonly small selection of his work for public consumption — so small, in fact, that it did not include many of his finest images, artistically speaking. Instead the chosen images were, in the main, those that advanced an impression of the shtetl as populated largely by poor, pious, embattled Jews — an impression aided by cropping and fabulist captioning done by his own hand. Vishniac’s curating job was so comprehensive that it would not only limit the appreciation of his talents but also skew the popular conception of pre-Holocaust Jewish life in Europe.

In the 1930s, as Hitler’s anti-Semitic campaign began in earnest, Vishniac, armed with both a Leica and a Rolleiflex, set out east to document the world from which his people had fled. It is unknown when exactly Vishniac traveled to the Pale of Settlement, but his trips most likely began around 1935 and ended in 1938, a period marked by the increasing poverty of Jewish communities and culminating in the German takeover of Poland and its three million Jews. Vishniac later claimed that he took 16,000 photographs — many of them, he added, with a hidden camera used to elude the local police and Orthodox authorities who forbade photography as the creation of “graven images.”

Jewish life in Eastern Europe, especially in the interwar years, was roiling and diverse. All kinds of people — secular and religious, urban and rural, wealthy and poor — consorted freely with one another in all aspects of what many of us would consider the pillars of a modern society: a lively and contentious political culture, a theater scene that rivaled those of most major European cities, a literary tradition comprising not only Yiddish and Hebrew work but also European fiction and a thriving economic trade that successfully linked cities and countrysides (one of Vishniac’s unpublished pictures shows a store in a tiny Eastern European town selling oranges imported from Palestine). Even Hasidic life, so easily caricatured as provincial and isolated, was nothing of the sort: yeshivas, like today’s universities, often attracted students from all over Eastern and Central Europe. The concentration of poverty and piety in Vishniac’s pictures in “Polish Jews” created a distinct impression of timelessness, an unchanging, “authentic society” captured in amber.

The article, by Alana Newhouse, is long, and the details sordid. Vishniac was subsidized by the Joint Distribution Committee, a Jewish relief organization, which specifically assigned him to take pictures of poverty and desolation for a fundraising project. It turns out that at least one of his most famous photographs, always presented as looking like a boy warning his hiding father that the enemy is coming, is actually two photographs taken in different towns at different times, and juxtaposed for effect. A picture of a girl in bed “because she was so poor she had no shoes” has a counterpart of the same (poor) girl standing up and wearing shoes.

Make no mistake: these are excellent photographs, both the ones that have been on view for decades and the ones that are just being released. A slide show of photos from both groups is here. Most of the new photographs are not yet available online.

modern dress photograph

For us, the question of what Vishniac did is interesting, and the question of why his incomplete photographs have had so much credibility for fifty years is fascinating.

Photographs are an astonishingly powerful medium for making myth. Even in the age of Photoshop, most photographs “look true” when we see them; our immediate reaction is to believe them, perhaps followed by questions about photomanipulation. When a photograph is labeled, presented, described as “documentary,” we are even more inclined to believe it. Documentary photography, by definition, claims to show us reality. Documentary photographers still make choices; they have to. But making choices is very different from suppressing or distorting truths. Faking pictures, false juxtapositions, dishonest captions all violate the basic reason for documentary. And photographs don’t lose their power if their reliability is questioned, as Laurie wrote about Robert Capa’s famous Spanish Civil War photograph.

Although many people in the United States and around the world knew about the Holocaust while it was happening, it only became “public knowledge” after the fact, and it was very hard knowledge to take in. People struggling to figure out not just who had died but what had been lost looked to imagery for answers, for comfort, and for reassurance.

As Maya Benton noticed when she started her quest, “You would think that right after the Holocaust they would choose the images that readers could identify with. But these images are most other.” On reflection, we don’t find this surprising. The photographs that were released are sentimental: they simplify and therefore they diminish. The truth is always complicated.

Perhaps even more to the point, photographs of the other are, by definition, not photographs of “us.” If “the other” was killed, slaughtered, erased from entire countries, then perhaps “we” are still safe. Or at least, that’s a story we can tell ourselves. “Not me, that wasn’t me, they wouldn’t have come after me.” Perhaps if Vishniac had released his complex, multi-leveled photographs, showing the little girl with her shoes and without, showing a woman in a suit and beret selling herring to a man in Orthodox garb, the people seeing the photographs would have been a little more challenged to put distance between the victims and themselves. Perhaps they would have had to see a more complex story of what happened.

The real question is the one Maya Benton poses at the end of the article: “Why are people so attached to the other story? The real story is so much better.” Part of the answer is that the other story made/makes people feel safer. Part is that myths by their nature are (at least on the surface) simple. And that is dangerous: simplifying, sentimentalized truths can never protect us from complicated realities.