06 June 2013

Ordered, Sorted and Chosen

What do those who talk through seeing say when it comes time to write about what they saw?

A year ago MB wrote from London to recommend that I read Robert Capa's Slightly Out of Focus, the great photographer's memoir of the Second World War.  I was, to use an overused yet ironically appropriately phrase, "blown away."  Capa's visual recall in this extraordinary piece of work is beyond belief.  His heroism and humor deeply imbedded in his writing that instantly added a finish to his photographic work that makes me miss the man even more any time his pictures appear--either randomly, in a book, or an museum gallery wall.  His voice amplified by his images, his images amplifying his voice.  That was the peculiar way in which "a man invented himself."

A few weeks ago MB wrote again from London telling me to read Bernard Gotfryd's autobiography, Anton the Dove Fancier.  Gotrfyd, a Newsweek photographer for thirty years, is a survivor from Radom, Poland, found work in the Radom ghetto developing Nazi film of their own atrocities, survived Maidanek, and after a career of capturing images and talking to his subjects about their lives and his, was encouraged to record his story.  His book is one of the most honest and profoundly moving memoirs of the Shoah I have ever encountered.  Modest in its scope but as deep, dark and ominous as Aharon Appelfeld for what is not said, Gotfryd tells stories, like Capa, through his astoundingly accurate image-memory.  He remembers in pictures.  And then tells you about it.  
As night crept away from morning early last week after reading his stories, mind lingered on things:  a pen; a loaf of bread; the underside of concentration camp barracks;  a mother crying on her last day with her son.  None of these actual pictures were in the book, of course.   But one imagines them as pictures in his mind, seen, and the reflected back through a life of capturing images with a camera, and then late in his career, writing them down.

In his collection of photographs, The Intimate Eye, Gotfryd and his son Howard describe how fellow Holocaust survivor Primo Levi came to encourage the photographer to tell his own stories in words and of the homage Levi wrote to Gotfryd three years before Levi's tragic death--words that would appear on the back of Anton the Dove Fancier:  "Bernard Gotfryd shows himself to be an exemplary man, mild and strong, never desperate, in constant search for goodness even in the most extreme situations.  We are grateful to him for this book because it makes us think."

The photographer is usually silent behind the camera.  We only ever know what the photographer thinks by the refraction of the images through their lens, onto a page, and only then, before our eyes.  But in Gotfryd's memoir, the Shoah's witness with an "intimate eye" on horror and humanity, the disturbing closeness of the destruction of European Jewish civilization, a developer of shapes and shade on a sheet of paper, is made real through words.  

"I have never written about things as they happened," said the Israeli writer and Holocaust survivor Aharon Appelfeld.  "To my mind, to create means to order, sort out, and choose the words and the pace that fit the work."

The refractions and distillations of Gotfryd's memory is one of the most quiet and powerful testimonies we have.  "The reality of the Holocaust surpassed any imagination," wrote Appelfeld.  "If I remained true to the facts, no one would believe me."

In Anton the Dove Fancier, Gotfryd has 'ordered, sorted and chosen' the words that create indelible images of humanity from all angles, never to be forgotten.


Andrew Silow-Carroll said...

Very much enjoyed your talk at the JCSA conference yesterday. Those interested in Capa might enjoy Kati Marton's book about the Hungarian refugees who reshaped journalism, the movies, and the arts in the mid-20th century, "The Great Escape."

Andy Bachman said...

good to see you yesterday, andrew! thanks for coming to the session and thanks for the recommendation of the book. i will check it out. andy