Of Life and Loss: The Polish Photographs of Roman Vishniac and Jeffrey Gusky
Varying Perspectives on Poland's History at SBMA
Of Life and Loss: The Polish Photographs of Roman Vishniac and Jeffrey Gusky pairs the work of two photographers who wandered the same areas some six decades apart. While Vishniac explored Poland’s Jewish villages of the 1930s and ’40s, Gusky’s late-20th-century visits to the same country took him to the sites where those communities once stood. Despite their shared locales, the resulting images could hardly be more different in subject matter or in style.
Vishniac documented a community in peril. In an era of growing anti-Semitism, the photographer posed as a traveling salesman and walked the streets of Poland’s shtetls, entering businesses and homes with a compact 35mm camera. In this way, he was able to capture on film a firsthand account of the social and economic hardships that resulted from growing boycotts and discrimination. Among these gritty scenes are busy streets in the Jewish quarter of Nalewki, a young girl huddled under blankets in a house without heating, and a Rabbi deep in discussion with a group of students. Vishniac’s straightforward images expose his subjects’ dignity in the face of strife.
While Vishniac captures the spirit of a people, Gusky’s visual journey examines the ghosts they left behind. The Texas-based photographer made several trips to Eastern Europe between 1996 and 2000, returning to the quiet landscapes that once nourished Jewish life. There he found crumbling synagogues, ghetto walls, and silent streets that once hosted bustling markets. Unlike Vishniac’s stark, literal approach, Gusky’s photographic method is consciously stylized.
By photographing primarily at night under grey and brooding skies or within a shroud of mist, Gusky injects a heavy-handed symbolism that undermines the inherent poignancy of his subjects. Consequently, one of Gusky’s most evocative images is also one of his most unadorned: a graffiti swastika on the wall of a residence in what was once the thriving Jewish quarter of Cracow. Just as in Vishniac’s work, this image evokes an immediate sense of life and loss precisely because it is unembellished.