In a recently published book, in Hebrew, called Criss Cross – Psychoanalysis, Art and Culture , one chapter, written by Rony Alfandary and titled Vishniac the Lone Photograph, was devoted to the Russian-American photographer Roman Vishniac (Wischniak, 1990-1887) [2, 3]. The author highlights and interprets the sharp shift Vishniac had made from photographing human figures and lives, mainly the culture of Jews in Central and Eastern Europe before the Holocaust, to focusing on microscopic animal photographs, after the war ended. Alfandary stresses that Vishniac’s pre-WWII works illustrate the extent of the destruction of Jewish life in Europe and claims that Vishniac felt the urge to do something to save the memory of his people, and set out to commemorate them in a monumental series of tens of thousands of photographs only a small part of which survived. After taking these photographs, Vishniac managed to escape to the United States, where he continued his photographic career but, as mentioned, almost completely stopped photographing human figures, resonating Theodore Adorno’s words: “To write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric”. Alfandary chose to look at one post-war image, a photograph taken by Vishniac in the early 1950s of a fish living in the depths, known as the Oyster Toadfish. This photo adorns the entry dedicated to this fish in the online version of the Encyclopedia Britannica . Vishniac photographed the fish as the fish was watching him, Alfandary writes, and this stare in the fish’s eyes is further echoed if the same photograph is placed in the context of other stares documented by Vishniac, the stares of the Jews he commemorated in Eastern Europe in the 1930s and could not save. When he set out on his travels in Eastern Europe, Vishniac further hoped that his artistic actions could bring about change and for this reason he made efforts to bring influential figures in American politics to see his photographs. These efforts failed and it was this failure, Alfandary asserts, that brought Vishniac thenceforth to choose to avoid taking photographs of people, as it was the human gaze that could also be read as a request for help from which Vishniac tried in his way to avoid, while dealing with guilt.
Interpreting Vishniac through his supposed work of bereavement and guilt places us in the register of meaning. In The Interpretation of Dreams Sigmund Freud wrote that “in a certain number of dreams the division into short preliminary dreams and long subsequent dreams actually signifies a causal relation between the two portions” . In other words, when a subject dreams two dreams in a row, in the same or not in the same night, one may consider the second dream as an interpretation of the first, A Posteriori, après-coup, Nachträglichkeit. S1 receives its meaning only after and by the appearance of S2. Hence, instead of interpreting Vishniac’s post-war animal photographs and connecting them with guilt, one may all the more so use these post-war photographs as an interpretation of Vishniac’s pre-war photography. That is to say, what is revealed in the photographs of animals, after the Holocaust, taken under laboratory conditions outside their natural living environment, is exactly that which was concealed and veiled in the eyes of the Jews in the photographs from the 1930s. A real that condemns human beings as organic bodies, organisms, a residual object petit a that is doomed be taken out of its living environment of and get disposed of.
“I call symptom that which comes from the real. It appears like a little fish whose voracious mouth only closes to make sense between its teeth”, so Lacan declares in La Troisième . Thus, Vishniac’s Oyster Toadfish, a Predatory fish, returns as a living fish coming from the real. A symptom, Vishniac’s symptom, putting the signifying chain to a halt while escaping it – something is indeed caught but something else at the same time escapes ; an object petit a; outside of meaning, the Oyster Toadfish stands for a Real already impenetrable, condensed and embedded in the photographs of pre-WWII Jews. A real brutally exposed in the gap between figures of organic life and human life, as these people disappeared as living beings but remained frozen in photographs.
1. Criss-Cross – Psychoanalysis, Art and Culture, edited by Hilit Erel-Brodsky and published by Resling Publishers in November 2020
5. Strachey, J. (1953) The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume IV (1900): The Interpretation of Dreams, Chapter 6-III.
6. Lacan, J. La Troisième. La Cause freudienne 2011/3 (N° 79), pages 11-33 [my translation, Y.G].
7. Mauas, M. To Fail Better. Et-Lacan Actuel (2021), editors: Sharon Zvilli, Hilla, Shamir Sidi. [Hebrew].