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Photographs of Jewish Life and Loss in Poland to Open at Detroit Institute of Arts

DETROIT, MI.- Poignant, haunting photographs of Poland’s Jewish communities taken in the 1930s by Roman Vishniac, and images of many of the same areas taken in the 1990s by Jeffrey Gusky are the subject of the moving exhibition Of Life and Loss: The Polish Photographs of Roman Vishniac and Jeffrey Gusky. The exhibition, at the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) from April 19 to July 12, includes 90 black-and-white photographs and is free with museum admission.

Through their photographs, Vishniac (1897-1990) and Gusky (born 1953), two very different photographers from very different eras, bore witness to the Jewish experience in Poland during the 20th century, preserving memories and documenting life experiences for future generations. Although taken 60 years apart, their images share themes of memory, life, and loss and are evidence of people and places that once were, and what remains in their absence.

Vishniac and Gusky have very distinctive styles. Due to the nature of his project and the escalation of anti-Semitism in 1930s Poland, Vishniac made photographs in the documentary tradition. With great empathy, he recorded the places and lives of individuals exactly as he found them, in their homes and in the streets. Almost 60 years later, Gusky, by contrast, interpreted former Jewish sites throughout Poland with a sensitive eye on the past. His misty and haunting images are devoid of human presence, and show former sites from many Jewish communities that once thrived throughout Poland.

While each photographer had an individual style and statement to make, it is both the relationship with and stark difference between the two that provides the greatest emotional impact. Brought together for the first time, Vishniac’s and Gusky’s photographs illuminate the individual lives lost, culture destroyed, and environments degraded by decades of neglect in Poland, as Gusky photographed the desecrated cemeteries, crumbling synagogues, and empty streets that served as the backdrop for Vishniac’s scenes of vibrant, mid-century Jewish life.

Vishniac was born in Russia, and fled to Berlin with his family in 1920. He worked as a biologist and supplemented his income as a photographer. Eventually he became compelled to use photography to document people and communities throughout Europe. In the 1930s Vishniac was commissioned by the Joint Distribution Committee, a Paris-based relief agency, to photograph Jewish life in Poland, where he took over 16,000 photographs (only 2,000 survived the war) over a three-year period. He photographed vibrant communities filled with people in their homes and schools, at their trades and in their streets, markets and temples. His poignant works are evidence of communities filled with life despite the lack of food, medical care and livelihood that prevailed.

Gusky is a physician in rural Texas who began photographing as a way to explore Jewish identity. Although a Jew of Russian decent, he became interested in the history of Jews in Poland after hearing a radio interview with Ruth Ellen Gruber, an American journalist who documented the ruins of Jewish communities in Eastern Europe. His photographs depict the vacant and somber sites of once-thriving Jewish communities throughout the country. With these images, Gusky reveals a powerful, dramatic message about a lost culture that was once part of Poland’s Jewish past. This initial photographic work has led him to further examine “the void of modern life,” and the threat of genocide that continues to haunt humankind of all ethnicities and cultures in the past and present.

This exhibition is organized by the Santa Barbara Museum of Art.

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