Adolfo Kaminsky’s photographs sat in hiding for a half-century, but nothing about the silver gelatin prints would tell you that. In most ways, they belong to a familiar genre: black-and-white street photography, standard candid fare, from late-1940s and early-1950s Paris. Here’s the Seine, there’s a flea market, a puddle on cobblestones, a lone figure in the street. Several possess a Cartier-Bresson poetic aesthetic, like the one of three nuns reading beside the Seine, the curve of their covered heads rhyming with the arches under the Pont Neuf. Others, like the one of napping workers whose shoe soles are almost in tatters, suggest the grain of humanist social documentary.
Two of the photographs, side by side, make a diptych:
In the first—night. Plastering of sycamore leaves on pavement wet with recent rain. On a bench, two lovers caress. The focus is soft, and a lamppost across the street glows exactly above the lovers’ heads like a private moon.
In the second—the same night. Same bench. Same leaves and lamppost. Same composition, the focus sharp, the lovers gone.
Here a story starts to take shape. One wonders if the lovers ran home in sweet heat and haste. One wonders how they broke each other’s hearts. Wonders whether they noticed Kaminsky, or ever thought of him again. Nothing is overt: outside the visible frame, in the uncounted time between exposures, two lovers have vanished.
Kaminsky knew that the definition of a disappearance is you don’t see it. By the time he took that pair of photographs, he had all but disappeared himself. It was just after World War II. He was in his early twenties and had no papers, no documented history of employment, no official past. Most of his friends had emigrated or perished. But Kaminsky remained in Paris: he had retreated into a clandestine life—already an enormously influential life—and his success depended on his invisibility. He might be glimpsed wandering the city with a camera, most often shooting deserted streets at night, but he was not really a photographer, and he could not afford to be known. He sleeved his negatives and stored them in boxes, where they remained through his underground decades, and then for a few silent decades more.
Seventy of Adolfo Kaminsky’s photographs were recently exhibited in the basement gallery at the Museum of Jewish Art and History in Paris. The photographs, as well as the story of his life, attune us to the costs of anonymity.
It is perhaps definitional to street photography that its subjects—a child at the water fountain, a man leaping over a puddle, a row of passengers through trolley windows—remain anonymous. Everything else is precise: the subject’s gesture or expression, the composition of the image, the instant. But anonymity blurs precision; it allows the meaning of the image to dilate in the mind of the viewer. Anonymity made way for Henri Cartier-Bresson’s visual poetry, beyond portraiture or documentary. In Robert Frank’s work, it enlarged the particular to the abstract: all those American faces, without name or identity, became iconographic facets of his social commentary.
The people Kaminsky photographed after World War II were anonymous to him, and he to them. He didn’t know what or whom they’d lost in the war, only that they were alive now—that they had, like him, survived.
Among Kaminsky’s pictures, there is a recurrence of solitary men, most with full and wiry beards: the chair caner seated on a low wooden crate, weaving. The organ grinder on a bridge over the Seine. The white-haired bookseller between tables of hardcover stacks, his prickly gaze askance, his four cats in angles of repose. In his own self-portrait from 1948, Kaminsky has no beard. He is twenty-three. He wears thick glasses, a heavy coat, an unlooped scarf. He sits alone on the abandoned railroad tracks that cut through the Fontainebleau forest. Those tracks—particularly at that time, and particularly for Kaminsky—are a haunted allusion.
By the start of the Second World War, Kaminsky’s family had already been exiled several times over. His Russian-Jewish parents had fled the pogroms; in 1917, they were expelled from France due to their involvement with the Jewish Labor Bund. (Kaminsky’s father, Salomon, was a journalist.) Kaminsky was born in 1925 in Argentina, the second of four children. By the time he was seven, the Kaminskys had had to relocate three more times—to Turkey, to Paris, and then to Vire, a small town in Normandy. They had little means, so to help support the family, Kaminsky dropped out of school at age thirteen and began selling hosiery with his uncle. Soon he was hired at a local factory wiring airplane panels.
In 1940, German tanks rolled into view. The factory closed. It changed hands. It reopened with a ban on employing Jews. Kaminsky, now fourteen, scanned classifieds and became a clothes-dyer’s apprentice.
Within months, his uncle, under threat of arrest after an altercation with a German officer, fled by rail to Paris. The Gestapo traced him through an intercepted letter. Kaminsky’s mother, informed of the intercepted letter by a policeman in Vire, rode to the city to warn her brother. She reached him, just in time, and he escaped—but she did not return home. The railroad company reported an “accident”: on the tracks between Paris and Vire, they had found her severed body.
In the following three years, while Kaminsky worked for the clothes-dyer, he became obsessed with dyes and mordants and reducing agents—with chemistry. He pored over textbooks and studied with a local pharmacist. He learned to make soap, which was in short supply. He also assisted a dairy chemist, testing the fat content of butter. He would dissolve methylene blue, an indelible ink, in cream and measure how quickly the lactic acid broke down the color, making it disappear.
By 1943, Kaminsky and his remaining family were among the last Jews in Vire. In October, they were all arrested. Piled into a van. Transported to the Caen prison, and then to Drancy. The camp had been under Nazi control for several years. Deportations—one thousand prisoners per convoy—ran along a direct rail line from there to Auschwitz.
The Kaminsky family counted to three: three months, the maximum internment before deportation. But at the end of their time, their Argentine citizenship created some bureaucratic confusion. German-Argentine diplomatic relations were just then being severed. Because of momentary miscommunication—that day, that very hour—about whether Argentines were exempt, the Kaminskys were not deported. They were set free.
The rarity is unthinkable—the convergence of circumstances a decisive moment, a split-second opening of an aperture through which this one family escaped. They separated immediately and went into hiding. Kaminsky, who had become so thin he had difficulty standing up, made his way to Paris.
Among the memories of Drancy that would torment Kaminsky, one particular face persisted. He had become friendly with an elderly couple; the man kept a well-trimmed beard. Just before the couple was to be deported, the man was shaved completely. And Kaminsky glimpsed his face one last time: this man stripped of everything, all dignity. The beards in Kaminsky’s photographs offer a silent elegy.
After his release from Drancy, Kaminsky needed false papers as a measure of protection. He found a contact in the Paris underground network. During their rendezvous, they strolled innocuously around the Collège de France, and Kaminsky was interviewed so that a plausible new identity could be created for him. The interviewer quickly gathered that Kaminsky’s knowledge of dyes and chemistry could make him invaluable to the resistance. Here was an eighteen-year-old who knew how to dissolve indelible methylene blue ink—something no one had thought possible. He was recruited immediately.
Kaminsky had a steady, precise hand, and soon he was filling out blank identity cards and un-stamping papers with chemical solutions. He replicated letterheads. He analyzed and reproduced watermarks. So began Kaminsky’s life as a professional forger: clandestine master of dyes and paper, of erasure, of binding, of stamps and fonts and handwriting. During the rest of the war, he hardly left the secret lab where, day and night, he fabricated documents for those in need of concealment, or in danger of deportation.
It is exacting work, this kind of forgery. On every detail hangs the fate of a person. No margin for the slightest slip or lapse. Add to this the urgency of crisis—that which makes people need forged documents in the first place—and you end up with calculations like this. Three hundred children, three days. In one hour I can make thirty blank documents. Each document must then be colored, filled out by hand and by typewriter, signed, stamped, artificially aged. If I sleep for one hour, thirty people will die.
How many thousands of faces passed before Kaminsky’s eyes in passport photos, each print a fixed gaze? The people he saved were anonymous to him and, he saw, equal.
After the war, Kaminsky remained in hiding. The illegality of what he had done, and the scale, constrained him to a life of paranoid caution. He kept a false name and often changed his address, and whenever he went out, he would circle the block several times before reentering his building to ensure he wasn’t being followed.
With his bellows camera, he frequented the Paris flea markets. Photography, that medium of silent witness, offered an escape from loneliness. Kaminsky’s gaze kept returning to jumbled displays of second-hand items—fragments of unknowable lives, now for sale. Most of his flea-market photographs are peopled by mannequins, icons of anonymity. As if anonymity itself had become his subject, not just an intrinsic aspect of the genre.
One picture shows the market at Clignancourt in 1955, where a dozen female mannequins, including two children, stand in front of a small monument to the French Revolution. They seem, at first, to comprise part of the monument—the gray of their plastic and the gray of its stone are of similar values in the exposure—but something about their nudity and near uniformity chills the viewer. Their eyelessness, too. The pose of the two child mannequins makes them seem as if they are about to start running—but is it toward us in a friendly greeting, or away from something else, their hands starting to flail, bodies naked, faces blind? It is hard not to see these plastic figures as so many anonymous women, rounded up, stripped, perhaps about to be gassed. Another of Kaminsky’s flea-market pictures shows a row of dolls laid along a table—naked, dislocated, heads lolling back—like tiny corpses.