Originally written for Chuck Fishman's exhibition Re-Generation: Jewish Life in Poland at the Galicia Jewish Museum, Kraków, 2019
The Volatile Mixture
I am writing this text in English, and the English language––like every other other language, as far as I know––has no verb for the way we make meaning with photographs, no verb that means “looking and reading,” or “speaking as a practice of seeing” or “receiving the poetics of facts and the facts of poetics.” Likewise, English has no good word to describe the volatile mixture of perception and imagination, the presence of that-which-was and that-which-still-is which characterizes the photographic illusion.
With most accomplished documentary photographs––including Chuck Fishman’s magisterial pictures of Polish Jews––the most obvious thing is also the most beguiling. What do the pictures tell us, and what are they telling us? (And which tense should we use for this question, the present indicative or the present continuous, the one not quite reducible to the other?) Are documentary pictures telling us anything at all? I confess that I ask this question rhetorically, convinced that the answer is a complicated “yes but not quite.” Documentary photography is better called a narrativistic art than a narrative one, inasmuch as documentary photographs show us a great deal while telling us very little. Rather than tell things, it is more accurate to say they solicit tales and acts of telling, and do so constantly and without relent––compelling us to generate captions and explanations and all manner of supplemental information. Good documentary photography begins just here: with the photographer’s recognition that the picture’s job is not to tell a story, rather to shake stories out of us, each in our own way, and to do so flatteringly, so that we come to value our own insight, and fuse what we can say about the image with what we can see in it. A good documentary photographer understands that a picture does not need to confirm a story, but only accommodate it, and that a good documentary picture is, in equal measures, easy to approach and aloof. Neither a self-illustrating story nor a self-explanatory observation, it is a special cultural artifact that releases seeing toward saying and saying toward seeing, with constantly refreshed results.
Or to put it differently, if photography is fundamentally about the exposure of sensitive surfaces, we would do well to distinguish two such surfaces when speaking about documentary, and two acts of exposure. Documentary’s first sensitive surface is an emulsion of silver halides or an electronic sensor, and its second sensitive surface is language. A documentary photograph is not merely the physical picture that results from optical-chemical or optical-electronic exposure, but the mental picture that results from the material picture’s exposure to language––language that we ourselves generate in trying to deal with, cope with, respond to the picture. And if so, a documentary photograph is less an object than a process embodied in an object. Just as a photographic negative can be used to make an infinite number of prints, exposing a picture to language results in verbal reckoning without limit.
About Chuck Fishman’s pictures, I am given to respond to his images like this: his account of the way things were and are is also––just as much––an account of the way things might have been and might still become. His account of postwar Jewish life in the 1970s and 2010s could be called a wish, maybe a wish masquerading as an account or an account deferring to a wish (either could be true). From one perspective, Fishman’s view is elegiac, a vision of what remains after physical and cultural genocide, Jewish life as a balance between the fragile and the resilient. From another perspective, Fishman’s view is defiant, a vision of life pressing forward through loss, the Jewish world doing more than just holding onto itself, but thriving oyf tsu lokhes the losses and brutality of the last three quarters of a century in Poland. It would be fair to say that Fishman’s pictures stage a contest between these perspectives, a wrestling match in which we ourselves––only us, because who else is there?––are asked to judge who wins, what prevails, and by how much, and with what left unexplained.
I am writing in English, without words to describe the spike in the soul that Fishman’s pictures open in me and were meant to open––a soul-spiking that is gentle and also emphatic, that induces a painful meditation without inflicting despair, that sees the dead and the living in an uncertain communion, with neither asked to speak falsely on behalf of the other. In Fishman’s pictures, the seen world is as much for living as for gazing upon, and the lived world is as much for pondering as for participating in. And in his pictures, the documentary real appears as it must. It is a double glint redoubling––the glint of the past, also the future, refracting through the surfaces of the world and through words––for a seeker who looks and keeps looking.