Tag Archives: Polish photographs

High school students share their perspectives

I jumped in to help out with the exhibition Of Life and Loss: The Polish Photographs of Roman Vishniac and Jeffrey Gusky during the last phases of development. I was immediately struck by the artists’ visually and emotionally compelling images that captured Jewish experiences in Poland at different points in time. Their photographs share the theme of memory—both how we remember the lives that once were and the void that remains when they’ve passed.

            The theme of memory applies to us all. Every time I see a photograph of my grandmother, I remember how she taught me to sew—with skill, patience, and a quiet persistence. She’s gone now, but her sewing machine remains—a durable reminder of her special talents. Her memory lives on in the stitches that help construct the garments I sew today.

We all have our own ways of thinking about memory, a fact evidenced by photographs taken by area high school students in conjunction with Of Life and Loss. I was moved by the images we received. As an educator, I’m constantly striving to find ways to make art relevant—searching for those kernels of meaning that will resonate. The results of the student photography project are those kernels – they are moving, insightful, striking, and evocative perspectives on how memory manifests itself in the everyday. Through the discerning eye of each individual student, the intricacies of remembrance emerge.

I was particularly intrigued by the fact that three different students (from two different schools) chose to take photographs of swing sets. Similar to the two photographers featured in the exhibition, the photographs by these three students focus on similar subject matter, but with distinct points of view.

In one, two swings sit empty in a black and white image of an elementary school playground. The student discusses her memories of “soaring through the skies” and her feelings of invincibility. The empty swings remind the viewer of more innocent days.

In another image, a single, broken swing hangs by a metal ring. The student recalls that “Unbroken playgrounds were scarce.” For this artist, the broken swing represents the memories that “children around Detroit hold.” The image captures the collective experiences of many urban youth.

In a third image, a series of swing sets cast linear shadows on the concrete and asphalt playground of a middle school. For this student the swings bring back memories of “swinging the shoes from our feet across the blacktop.” To her, these swing sets represent “the good ol’ days,” suggesting a loss of what once was.

These are just a few of the many student photographs that can be seen in conjunction with Of Life and Loss. Be sure to look for the students’ work when you come. A running slideshow presents the photographs accompanied by a booklet that contains artist statements. Thank you to the photography students and teachers from Dearborn High School, Renaissance High School, and Roeper High School. Your work is proof that art matters.

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

Nat Gutman's Wife, Warsaw, 1938, by Roman Vishniac, © Mara Vishniac Kohn courtesy the International Center of Photography

Nat Gutman's Wife, Warsaw, 1938, by Roman Vishniac, © Mara Vishniac Kohn courtesy the International Center of Photography

Late last week, DIA staff finished the installation for the exhibition Of Life and Loss: The Polish Photographs of Roman Vishniac and Jeffrey Gusky which opened this past Sunday, April 19.  Sometimes for me, looking at photographs can be like stepping back into the past – or stepping into a time machine – I witness people who may no longer exist as well as the places where they once lived. This was exactly the experience I had when crates arrived at the DIA several weeks ago filled with 90 photographs from the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. I saw first hand the work of Roman Vishniac, who photographed Jewish communities in Poland in the 1930s along with the work Jeff Gusky, who photographed remnants of those communities in the late 1990s. The images are powerful transmitters of traditions and history.

Before World War II, over 3.5 million Jews lived in Poland – their traditions, religion, and customs evolved and were preserved in the country for nearly five centuries. By the end of the 20th century, these communities had nearly vanished with their population diminishing to about 20,000 in recent years. Creating a very large visual record of this life, Roman Vishniac photographed the ghettos in Warsaw and Kazimierz as well in other cities in the 1930s. Gusky, although initially unaware of Vishniac’s extensive work in Poland, returned several decades later in the 1990s to capture the former ghettos, abandoned synagogues, and desecrated cemeteries, many which have been subject to neglect or vandalism. Although taken sixty years apart, their images share themes of memory, life, and loss. The photographs are evidence of people and places that once were, and what remains in their absence.

Corridor in Kazimierz, Former Jewish District, Cracow, 1996, by Jeffrey Gusky, © Jeffrey Gusky

Corridor in Kazimierz, Former Jewish District, Cracow, 1996, by Jeffrey Gusky, © Jeffrey Gusky

Photographs like those in Of Life and Loss preserve historical moments, memories and life experiences for future generations. This is largely due to the dedication of individual photographers who capture in-depth ordinary moments or nondescript places. In a photograph these encounters are transformed by personal perceptions, and we acquire the ability to see and experience life through the eyes of a photographer. We grasp some aspect of the world that had somehow escaped our attention.

To further enhance our audience’s experience at the DIA, there are listening stations in the gallery, where visitors can hear personal stories by individuals who have survived the Holocaust in Poland. The audio is courtesy of the Holocaust Memorial Center Zekelman Family Campus, in Farmington Hills, Michigan. In addition, just outside the gallery is a monitor and brochures where visitors can view photographic work made in response to this exhibition by local high school students.

Of Life and Loss: The Polish Photographs of Roman Vishniac and Jeffrey Gusky is on view through July 12 in the Albert and Peggy de Salle Gallery of Photography at the DIA. The exhibition is organized by the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. In Detroit, the exhibition is sponsored by *Bill and Karen Davidson. 

*In blessed memory.

In the Company of Artists – Last Chance to See the Exhibition


Jean Michel Basquiat, 1987, by Ari Marcopoulos
Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1987, by Ari Marcopoulos

Sunday, February 15, 2009, is the last day to see In the Company of Artists at the DIA. During the run of this exhibition, I had the good fortune of spending time with some of the photographers who, through their wonderful portraits, helped make this exhibition such a success.  If you’ve been reading this blog in past weeks, you will already know that Ari Marcopoulos was in town for a lecture in January. He was absolutely thrilled to see his entire portfolio of artists’ portraits  in the exhibition. This photograph of Basquait is a particular favorite of mine. Whenever I see photographs of this artist, it sends me back in time to New York City and the East Village art scene that was so vibrant during the 1980s. Although I never had an opportunity to meet the artist, I almost feel as if I’ve been in his studio when I look at Ari’s work.

Yesterday, Detroit photographer Brad Iverson stopped by the DIA to see the exhibition. We had lunch in the cafe, and I absolutely love hearing him reminisce about his conversations and memories of Detroit artists, their work and exhibitions from the Cass Corridor era in the 1970s. When I visited Brad back in the summer, he had been digging through his archives, and we looked through his many photos of Detroit. I found out during my visit, that he had spent quite a bit of time photographing painter Allie McGhee over the years and one of these portraits is in the exhibition. Apparently, the two met when Detroit collector Gill Silverman commissioned Brad to create a series of portraits of Detroit artists. Brad and Allie became fast friends and jogging partners over the years. I was excited to get the news that Brad has a few book projects in development, and hopefully, I’ll be seeing his work compiled in a publication soon.


Artists' Club, Ionia County, Michigan, ca. 1870-85, by an unknown photographer, from the Leonard and Jean Walle collection.

Although the portraits of contemporary artists have fascinated our visitors, a number of people have remarked to me about the interesting selection of works on view from the 19th century. I am indebted to Len in Jean Walle for sharing a few treasures from their collection with the DIA.  They have been kind enough to invite me to their home where we have spent hours viewing their rare photographs. I remember one visit with the Walle’s last summer, when I first saw this photograph of group of women artists from Ionia, Michigan. I still wonder who these women were, and I’m sure their paintings can be found in the homes and attics of their relatives and friends.

Plans for our next photography exhibition are taking shape and on April 19, 2009, Of Life and Loss: The Polish Photographs of Roman Vishniac and Jeffrey Gusky will open in the Albert and Peggy de Salle Gallery of Photography.

Vishniac, Isaac Street, Kazimierz, Cracow, 1938, gelatin silver print, Collection of Mara Vishniac Kohn

Isaac Street, Kazimierz, Cracow, 1938, by Roman Vishniac, Collection of Mara Vishniac Kohn