Sunday, April 04, 2010


It turns out that what we have seen of the photography of Eastern European Jews before World War II by Roman Vishniak is not necessarily representative of that place and time or of his body of work.

It's good to know these things, but unclear how much difference it makes, particularly this many years later.

It's a commonplace that photography is not the simple truth-telling mechanism it is sometimes thought to be. Those of us who try to do it at more than the snapshot level have found how incredibly difficult it is to get what you want, particularly when people are involved.

We always have something in our head that sets the stage for what we do: assumptions about sexuality that bend research conclusions, or knowing what a place has been used for.

I was putting some photos up on Facebook this morning of my trip to the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site in Kazakhstan. The steppe is so beautiful, so many plants and birds, even where explosions have gouged the surface. I was lucky enough to be there in early summer, when flowers were blooming.

But the Washington Post recently had a photo feature about Semipalatinsk. Nuclear testing bad...damage to frightened...terrible things happen. The photos are tuned to reinforce that message. Browned grass (must be fall, winter, or early spring), overcast skies, shadows.

I'll agree that nuclear testing is bad. But I get tired of the images and feelings that are constantly evoked. The steppe is beautiful and rich in life. It is not a blasted heath, even where it is radioactive.

And, for that matter, browned grass can be beautiful. Here's another photo I posted on Facebook:

That's from the Wisconsin tall-grass prairie. Steppe is another word for prairie.

The danger is that we deceive ourselves and others or get stuck in our frames. Reality is more than a single picture, or even a series.

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