Of Life and Loss: The Polish Photographs of Roman Vishniac and Jeffrey Gusky

Through July 12, 2009

The Detroit Institute of Arts

5200 Woodward Avenue, Detroit



About 2,500 years ago, the prophet Jeremiah, having predicted Nebuchadnezzar’s imminent destruction of the First Temple, composed the famous line, “Why did I leave the womb – to see toil and pain – that I may live out my days in shame?” About 500 years later, Joseph ben Matthias, also known as Josephus, observed and recorded the destruction of the Second Temple by Roman emperor Titus, claiming in Book VI of the “War of the Jews”  (chapter nine) that 1.1 million Jews were killed and 97,000 were enslaved in the siege.


Jeremiah was a prophet who communicated with G-d; Josephus was not. The Jewish general was something close to a historian, albeit prone to exaggeration and to various biases, including the belief that Greco-Roman culture could and should embrace Judaism. Jeremiah wrote the book on Temple mourning, while Josephus simply came up with a sequel.


The same could be said of the pair of photographers featured in the exhibit “Of Life and Loss: The Polish Photographs of Roman Vishniac and Jeffrey Gusky” at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Separated by six decades rather than half-a-century like Jeremiah and Josephus, Vishniac and Gusky both captured the destruction of Eastern European Jewry.



Roman Vishniac, Isaac Street, Kazimierz, Cracow, 1938, gelatin silver print,

© Mara Vishniac Kohn, courtesy of the International Center for Photography.



The review ought to write itself based on the model of Jeremiah and Josephus. The first 45 images belong to celebrated Russian-Jewish photographer Roman Vishniac (1897 – 1990), born in the town of Pavlovsk to an umbrella manufacturer and the daughter of a diamond merchant, who in the mid-1930s used an American Joint Distribution Committee commission to take more than 16,000 photographs (2,000 survive) of Eastern European Jews. The other 45 photos in the exhibit belong to Gusky, a physician from Texas, who traveled to Poland to photograph the remnants of destroyed Jewish houses and villages, “motivated by his personal feelings of horror, experienced five years before 9/11 while traveling in Poland, that mass destruction could happen again in modern times,” according to a release from the Santa Barbara Museum of Art (where the show originated).


Vishniac is of course the master, and Gusky the student who imitates rather than innovates. As the Santa Barbara Museum puts it, Vishniac reflects an “emotionally raw” and “less polished” approach than Gusky, who is an “amateur” photographer. The two have “very distinctive photographic styles.” Promotional materials do reveal that both artists are of Russian-Jewish descent, that both were “compelled” to create photos “in part by personal reasons springing from their Jewish heritage,” and that both have “professional ties to biological science” and as such address “the fragility of human life.”


But unlike the Jeremiah-Josephus example, neither of these two artists is a prophet, nor does Vishniac need be worshiped. Art historians might call my position absurd, but “Of Life and Loss,” at least in my estimation, shows two equally accomplished photographers, who wield their cameras in much the same way – yielding black-and-white images which are simultaneously arresting for their beauty and their tremendous sadness. 



Jeffrey Gusky, Desecrated Synagogue and Jewish School, Dzialoszyce, 1999, baryta fiber print, © Jeffrey Gusky.



Surely, Vishniac was a name I recognized, while I was unfamiliar with Gusky, but just spending half-an-hour on the latter’s website revealed a tremendous repertoire, including works like “Former Jewish Home In Use As Public Toilet” (Dzialoszyce, Poland, 1996), “Last Remaining Segment Of Wall Around Wartime Jewish Ghetto” (Cracow, Poland, 1999), and “Desecrated Synagogue As Trash Repository” (Wodzislaw, Poland, 1999). Given the powerful narrative components to the photographs, I was not surprised to learn that Gusky’s photos had been paired with etchings by Francisco de Goya in a show on “Images of Human Tragedy” (2003-2004).


Gusky’s “Broken Stain Glass Window” was taken inside a darkened room looking out through a circular window, which features a Star of David missing a “leg.” Not only has some vandal done damage to the star itself, but the wall surrounding the star is cracking, and seems unlikely to be able to bear the burden of the Jewish symbol much longer. Gusky offers his viewers a glimpse of the Polish cityscape through the lens (literally) of a desecrated Jewish symbol.


Jeffrey Gusky, Broken Stain Glass Window, Wielkie Oczy, 2001, baryta fiber print,

© Jeffrey Gusky.



If “Broken” is abstract in its geometric approach, “Desecrated Synagogue and Jewish School” shows a more literal scene: a muddy path leading to the shell of a former synagogue. However decimated, Gusky’s building has the majestic appearance of Roman ruins. Having lost much of its roof, the former synagogue seems to sport a classical pediment, and the scene looks all the more magical since Gusky’s camera captures such bright light on the left edge of the photo that the tree branches in front of the building appear to come out of nowhere.


By comparison, Roman Vishniac’s “A Square in Kazimierz” brings a figure into sharper (though still somewhat blurry) focus, while pushing the villagescape to the background. A man carrying a cane rests while trudging through the snow. Despite the cane, the man is in danger of collapsing, and with him the entire world he knows. The Jew in “Isaac Street” seems to be faring far better, though he puts his left hand over his heart, perhaps holding his coat closed to evade the snow, or perhaps clutching at his heart. Yet, the street corner, announced as “Ulica Izaaka” by a sign above the head of a woman bearing a covered basket, is the same street corner that Gusky tracked down 63 years later in “Graffiti on Izaaka Street in the Former Jewish Quarter” (Cracow, 2001). As the title implies, Gusky’s photograph shows a swastika drawn on the wall of a building. Several figures walk away from the swastika, perhaps guilty for creating it, attempting to avoid it, or altogether oblivious to it.



Roman Vishniac, A Square in Kazimierz, Cracow, 1938, gelatin silver print,

© Mara Vishniac Kohn, courtesy of the International Center for Photography.



Vishniac’s camera told him that the scenes he was recording were breathing their final breaths, and Gusky, returning to the scenes of the crime, found symbols still declaring hatred and destruction. In their approach to photographing destruction, Vishniac and Gusky might be compared to a different Jewish ancestor. Rabbi Akiva famously laughed when he saw foxes running around in the ruins of the Temple. Just as Rabbi Akiva found promise and hope in the destruction, Vishniac’s and Gusky’s photographs are complex and reveal tragedy and beauty bundled together.


Menachem Wecker welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com. He is a painter and writer, residing in Washington, D.C.