Photos let image speak for itself
Photojournalist Clemens Kalischer’s photos are simple yet arresting. Perhaps upon first glance, his exhibit in the Colby College Museum of Art appears sparse. But his telling portraits are rich with the narrative of war, imprisonment, rescue and relief. His series “Displaced Persons” is currently on display in the Upper Jette Galleries.
“Displaced Persons” is a series of candid portraits of World War II refugees arriving in the United States at the New York Harbor in 1947 and 1948. Kalischer gets close to his subjects. They let him. He had made that same journey six years earlier in 1942, when he was rescued from an internment camp in France by the American-funded Emergency Rescue Committee.
Kalischer said in a 1999 interview, “I used to go to the harbor whenever a ship arrived…I saw the fear and the expectation in [their] faces…and I could really feel for them, because I’d experienced the same thing. I think it was this empathy, which enabled me to…photograph them without disturbing them.”
There is not much information about Kalischer readily available. This brief 1999 interview is published in the eponymous volume Clemens Kalischer, edited by Norbert Bunge, founder of the Argus Fotokunst Gallery in Berlin, who is praised for rediscovering lost legends such as Kalischer.
Kalischer’s empathy is palpable in images such as one titled “Reunion,” in which a man buries his faces in a woman’s shoulder, caught in an embrace full of desperate relief. Kalischer is equally privy to less dramatic moments, capturing two young girls whispering to each other excitedly amidst the chaotic mess of baggage, their spirits resilient in the face of hardship, entitled “Sisters.”
The series was one of Kalischer’s first personal photographic projects. He didn’t pick up a camera until he was 26, but his early work is not that of any amateur. His simple gelatin silver prints convey the emotional narratives of refugees of all ages and classes. The joy of one young couple shines out from the image, and you can imagine the woman running to meet the man arriving in the harbor and almost leaping into his arms as he looks straight at the camera, beaming.
His portraits focus on these individual narratives, many depicting these couples or single figures: a small girl standing alone amidst a crowd of trunks; an older woman marching off into the grimy streets of downtown; two women sitting on their trunks, tired, waiting. Kalischer played the part of observer, but his subjects and compositions are by no means static or uncomplicated.
“Displaced Persons” has the unique quality of blending journalistic and artistic styles. The series captures a historical moment entrenched in the narrative of WWII and the Holocaust. And yet he exhibit gives no information about the individual images, about the individuals themselves.
From a photojournalistic point of view, this unadorned exhibit leaves one wanting more. “Who are these people? Where are they coming from?” Museum-goer Philip Bennet wondered.
Kalischer gives us a very different series of Holocaust portraits than, perhaps, Jeffrey Wolin’s “Written in Memory: Stories from the Holocaust,” in which Wolin has taken more contemporary portraits and actually written quotes from the survivors about their experiences on the print themselves.
In “Displaced Persons,” the story does not come from a neat blurb or pertinent quote. Kalischer gives us the portrait and lets the photo create the narrative; he lets the framing and the lighting and the expressions on their faces tell the story, which is where journalism falls into the arms of art. Their biographies are not missing from the exhibit. They are written in the image.
“Displaced Persons” will be on display in the Museum until June 12th. Bunge’s book “Clemens Kalischer” is available at Bixler Library.