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New York Times misses mark on probable Vishniac photo fictions

I’d love to know what Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass, and James Frey – not to mention late lamented and embattled photographers Robert Capa and Joe Rosenthal -- think about the New York Times’ kid-glove treatment of Roman Vishniac this weekend.

Vishniac produced some of the most poignant and haunting images of Jews in pre-Holocaust Eastern Europe. Take this pairing, for example.

( “JEWISH MAN LOOKING THROUGH IRON DOOR, WARSAW, CIRCA 1935–38;” “BOY PLAYING, LODZ, CIRCA 1935–38.” Roman Vishniac, from Mara Vishniac Kohn/International Center of Photography.)

Vishniac said it was of a father and son; the father hiding from a lynch mob, the son signaling him that the mob was coming … “But," Vishniac writes, "the iron door was no protection.”

Trouble is, as outlined in the NYT Magazine article by Alana Newhouse, it probably didn’t happen the way Vishniac told it.

A scholar, Maya Benton, has found convincing evidence that the guy in the photo was just a curious man peering through a window, and the kid was just a kid, playing. Visniac’s own notations indicate the photos were taken in different villages.

In another photo, a little girl is shown, disheveled and sad, the caption saying she is too poor even to afford shoes. Yet Benton found another photo of the girl, happily playing with other kids – and wearing shoes! Further, Vishniac was highly selective about which photos he released, focusing on only the poorest shtetl-dwellers, eliminating shots of Jews in everyday life that didn’t tug at the heartstrings.

To be clear: I’m not questioning the facts of Newhouse’s article. It’s well-written, seems to be well-researched, and includes many quotes from people who never quite trusted Vishniac.

Nor am I arguing that the Big Truth of Vishniac’s photos is a lie. He tells the story of horrible suffering which really happened.

But by any measure, the photos are bad journalism – as bad as the crime photogs who carried a kid’s doll around to place in photos of car accidents to heighten the emotional impact of their work. Yet the Times article is titled “A Closer Reading of Roman Vishniac,” not, “Revered Photographer Probably Faked Most of It.” And it includes phrases like, “a fascinating set of ambiguities and unanswered questions” not the words “fraud,” “fake,” or “lie.”

Furthermore, what good does it do to eliminate all coverage of middle-class Jews who also fell victim to the Holocaust? As Newhouse writes, “the chosen images were, in the main, those that advanced an impression of the shtetl as populated largely by poor, pious, embattled Jews — an impression aided by cropping and fabulist captioning done by his own hand. Vishniac’s curating job was so comprehensive that it would not only limit the appreciation of his talents but also skew the popular conception of pre-Holocaust Jewish life in Europe.”

Given the plagiarism and/or fakery by Glass, Blair, Frey, et alia, and all the negative attention paid Capa and Rosenthal for their iconic photos of, respectively, the Spanish Civil War and the Marines taking Iwo Jima, you’d think the Times would have learned, by now, to play it straight. The big truth of the article is that most likely, Vishniac was a faker. A very good or possibly great photographer and a wonderful storyteller, but a man who – for whatever greater goal -- misled the public.

The ultimate irony is the story’s ultimate paragraph:

For Benton, too, the remaining mystery is not about Vishniac but about his audience — then and now. “What’s interesting to me is less Vishniac’s tendency toward mythology than the Jewish need to have those mythologies and the attachment they have to them, even in the face of evidence to the contrary,” Benton says. “Why are people so attached to the other story? The real story is so much better.”

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