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Describing Who?

Poland in Photographs by Jewish Artists

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Joanna Auron-Gorska

«Describing Who?» reveals the significance of photographs taken in contemporary Poland by professional American, French and Israeli Jewish photographers. Writing critically from the vantage point of her Polish and Jewish background, Joanna Auron-Górska argues that while visual representations of Poland and the Poles may appear atemporal, they are neither ahistorical nor apolitical. They are, instead, influenced by the culturally conditioned construct within which Poland serves to maintain the memory of the Shoah, by war trauma, and by post-war politics. The attitudes of foreign Western Jewry to non-Jewish Poles and Poland have so far received limited scholarship; this analysis is a contribution towards enlightening the conversation between Poles and Jews from outside of Poland.
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Chapter 14. Slivers of Light

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The image of Poland in Gusky’s Silent Places refers to the Polish present only as far as it enables representing its Jewish past. Camera trained on entropy, neglect and decay, Gusky expertly uses the play of light – in Gusky’s work it is nearly always natural sunlight – to redefine outlines of now non-existent architecture. Current destruction and the now missing pre-war world are thus seamlessly united. Gusky’s images are romantic: they evoke “the good old days”, tease longing out of crumbling stone, and call forth a nostalgic appreciation for life’s fragility out of rotting wood. The rich texture of his ruins makes stone and wood look as if they were dissolving into light and air; in Gusky’s album, entropy proceeds with grace. Jerzy Nowosielski used the words below to describe all reality, but of all places Silent Places certainly are somewhere where

we clearly and palpably feel… the presence and actuality of evil – that feeling is almost universal. Each, even merely adequately intelligent person knows it. But if its presence within reality is so powerful and so omnipotent, one can all the more suspect that beneath it or above it there lies another reality, which is opposed to it and which is more important.286

This duality is found in Gusky’s photography: deserted streets are not merely streets but sites of slaughter, and littered skeletons are not rubbish dumps but sixteenth-century synagogues. His photographs fall within the genre of vanitas, where into a meditation on the...

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