Photography Among the Ruins
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A parrot behind a fence. The white caged bird draws the eye to the center of the image. Children cling to the outer side of the metal barrier. They are captivated by the animal, staring at it, motionless. The title reveals why the children are so taken with the caged bird. Its name is Adolf and the parrot says “Heil Hitler” in the Munich zoo. The year is 1949.
The image is one of the highlights of “We Went Back,” an exhibit of photographs from Europe of 1933-1956 by Chim at the International Center for Photography. The show, organized by Cynthia Young, depicts the struggle to rebuild shattered lives and buildings after the havoc wrought in Europe by World War II.
Chim, short for David Szymin/Seymour, was one of the inspirations for the founding of the ICP. His photojournalism spanned 20 years of tumultuous events, including the Spanish Civl War, during which Chim shot an iconic image of Picasso in front of Guernica in 1937. As iconic are women working in a munitions factory in 1938, painting the surface of bombs as non-chalantly as if they were canvases. Later he went on to cover World War II and the rise of independent Israel post-1948.
“We Went Back” looks at Europe rebuilding after the war’s end, mostly showing people living among devastating ruins. “Children playing on Omaha Beach, Normandy, France,” 1947, shows four children making sandcastles in the shadows of a massive metal remnant of a war ship. Another image from 1947 juxtaposes a newborn baby amid the wreckage of brick buildings in Essen, Germany.
Particularly haunting are the photographs from the Unesco project on “The Children of Europe.” Mostly ill, amid ruins or working, the children of post-War Europe are shown in moving detail.
There are numerous photos of Isabella Rosselini later in his oeuvre reflecting the rarefied circles Chim moved in. Chim’s career is startling for its breadth and ended when he was killed in action while on location in 1956.
The second complementary exhibit at the ICP is “Roman Vishniac Rediscovered,” curated by Maya Benton. While both shows feature the work of Eastern European Jewish photographers from the World War II era, this second exhibit is more focused on the lives of Jewish refugees after the wartime displacement.
Vishniac began photographing Berlin street life in the 1920s, documenting the Nazi rise to power. Later, his largest project was a four-year commission to capture impoverished Jewish communities by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, a relief organization. The resulting series “Jewish Life in Eastern Europe 1935-1938” made his career. These images give an insight into Jewish life in the interwar years, depicting factory labor, farming, dwelling in tight quarters, and worship.
Vishniac continued to document the Jewish community in New York after he emigrated to the United States in 1941. He took portraits of Jewish emigre community there, including an iconic portrait of Albert Einstein of 1942.
In a darkened theater there are spectacular images such as “gastric juice enzyme,” “cross section of a ranunculus root,” and “vitamin b6,” examples of another aspect of Vishniac’s output, his pioneering work in photomicroscopy.
Vishniac returned to Europe, like Chim, in 1947 and took pictures of Jewish displaced persons’ camps in Poland, Germany and France. The images had an humanitarian impact at the time. One photo of “Nettie Stub, eleven years old, from Hannover, in a Polish detention camp, 1938,” reached the Red Cross through publication, resulting in the rescue of the refugee. Later Stub, living as Nettie Katz in the Bronx, saw the photo of herself in “A Vanished World,” Vishniac’s publication, and contacted the photographer. She told Vishniac that she believed the photograph saved her life.
From the same trip, there are stunning images of Berlin in ruins from 1947, a boy standing on “a mountain” of rubble, and many streetscapes of people walking along in front of ruins, most poignantly a woman on crutches with one leg ambling along a street of ruined buildings. It is one of many powerful visual associations to the interwar and postwar eras provided by these two exhibits, which provide a valuable photographic context for some of the most troubling episodes of the 20th century.
“We Went Back: Photographs from Europe 1933-1956 by Chim” and “Roman Vishniac Rediscovered” are on view through May 5, 2013 at the International Center for Photography, 1133 Sixth Avenue at 43rd Street, 212-857-0000, www.icp.org.
Lisa Tannenbaum is an art historian and photographer. Her images can be viewed at www.lisatannenbaumphotography.com