In April of 2010, the New York Times ran a fascinating article byAlana Newhouse that described a curator’s discovery that the well known work of the photographer Roman Vishniac documented a world of Eastern European Jewry that had never really existed. In great part due to Vishniac and his careful editing and captioning of photographs, the predominant image of Jewish communities before the Holocaust had become a sentimentalized one of poverty and piety that erased the many secular and cosmopolitan aspects of Jewish life.
I found the article absolutely compelling. In part, I liked its detective work. But after an adulthood steeped in photography thanks to my photographer husband, I also found its conclusions a very good fit with my understanding of what photography is and the way it functions. Just as the occasional memoir is more fiction than fact, photography has its own tradition of misleading people. Sometimes the fakery falls more into the category of pictures billed as candid that were actually posed. Robert Doisneau’s and Ruth Orkin’s work offer some of the more famous examples in “The Kiss” and “American Girl in Italy.” They’re perfectly composed and narratively strong, and the viewer is easily drawn to them and ready to believe they’re simply a captured moment, not one that’s staged and captured.
They were, however, choreographed. It’s ironic, I think, that we understand movies–even documentaries–are carefully made and edited to convince us about something, but rarely have that reaction to photographs. Instead, we’re likely to feel we’re seeing something truly authentic even if it’s as clearly designed and agenda-driven as a Diane Arbus image. Vishniac’s edited photo universe is of a much different scale–shaping a vision of a whole people that entered the collective memory—but it is still part of an art form that has always had a power to manipulate.
The whole reality of the unique way photographs can shape our imagination came home to me the first time I went to Europe. It was 1978 and I’d read so much European literature in translation and of course knew a little European history. I also had this tremendously romantic notion of what I was going to find. It was reaffirmed occasionally. More often it wasn’t, and that was most vivid when the train I was on approached Barcelona. Spain was still extremely poor then, and I even had a somewhat romantic notion of that. But as the cars inched toward the station, we went past mile after mile of houses atop hillsides that were totally strewn with garbage. Piles of it. Rivers of it. I could almost see the motion of the people who had tossed their refuse out the door. I remember thinking that my idea of Europe was completely severed from reality, that it had been edited by the pictures I’d seen.
The really interesting question is why so many people—and not just a people with a visceral memory of the Holocaust but just about everyone—are so persuaded by photographs even though they offer a very selective viewpoint. We know to look for bias in the printed word, yet photographs have the power to persuade us that a bowdlerized world is a factual one. On one level, it may be due to something that’s purely visual—the fact that photographs are so static, their moments frozen in an unyielding reality. Yet I suspect our reactions come from something deeper, that we actually have an emotional need for the things photgraphs let us imagine, just as the viewers of Vishniac’s edited world needed the simple world they portrayed. As the Newhouse article suggests, how much easier to remember innocence than the complex world that the Holocaust destroyed.