Book Review – David Shneer: Grief (2020)

Written at the occasion of the 80th commemoration of the German invasion of the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941

“Human suffering. Will it be remembered in centuries to come? … Tears and whispers, a cry of pain and despair, the last sighs and groans of the dying – all this disappears along with the smoke and dust blown across the steppe by the wind,” Vasily Grossman muses in Stalingrad (2020: 550).

One way of remembering human suffering, tears and whispers in connection with the German invasion of the Soviet Union is through photographs produced by such outstanding Soviet photographers as Dmitri Baltermants, Yevgeny Khaldei, Arkady Shaikhet, and numerous others.

One of these images, Baltermants’ Grief, is the subject of David Shneer’s book-length reflections. Human suffering inflicted upon the civilian population of the Crimean city of Kerch during the German occupation of November and December 1941, especially but not exclusively upon the city’s Jewish population, will be remembered through Grief – a picture Baltermants took as staff photographer at Izvestiia on 2 January 1942 after Soviet troops had managed to liberate the city from German occupation and before German troops re-occupied it in May 1942.

You can find the image here as part of the Time Magazine’s 100 Photographs project.

“The memory of war,” Susan Sontag notes (2003: 35), “is mostly local.” It is through such photographs as Grief that it becomes universal. Grief is one of the unforgettable images of human suffering, depicting pain and despair almost unbearably.

During the war, the photograph, developed by Baltermants in a mobile darkroom and then sent to Moscow, was not published in Izvestiia – “Why remains a mystery” (p. 53). Arguably, after the failure of the German blitzkrieg strategy in December 1941 and the temporary Soviet liberation of Kerch, more optimistic images were requested, visually anticipating Soviet victory rather than dwelling on suffering and pain. However, a different and cropped version of Grief, showing the main protagonist in a different posture, appeared in March 1942 in the illustrated magazine Ogonek (pp. 53–56 and 97–98).

After the war, “Soviet photographic diplomacy,” in addition to visualizing Soviet everyday life, aimed “to show the Soviet Union’s radically different experience of World War II, both in terms of the overwhelming violence meted out by Nazi Germany and the Red Army’s stunning victory” (p. 96). Baltermants shared this perspective but he also wanted this image of a grieving woman “to resonate with all audiences, regardless of national background” (p. 96) thus serving as a symbol of universal suffering – “an icon against war” (p. 205). Therefore, we suppose, the generic title, Grief (Gor’e) rather than, for example, The Grief of P. I. Ivanova, the image’s main subject as identified in the Ogonek article. (For reasons explained in the Epilogue, Shneer could not conduct in-depth research about her.)

Shneer discusses Grief among other things in terms of both aestheticization and commodification of suffering. He shows how Baltermants moved the photograph from documentary to art by increasing contrast and adding “black, billowing clouds” (p. 101) to the slightly damaged and in terms of background rather nondescript original photograph (pp. 98–102). We are not sure if Grief really needed such dramatization; arguably, the photograph’s documentary version (reproduced on p. 99) with its dull and grey sky is equally devastating and hopeless – and, therefore, revelatory.

Shneer also analyzes “the process of transforming a powerful communist war photograph produced for aesthetic and political purposes into a capitalist art commodity for aesthetic and financial purposes” (p. 154). His analysis supports Walter Benjamin’s suspicion, articulated in 1934, that photography, “by apprehending [the subject depicted] in a fashionably perfected manner,” can transform every subject into both “an object of enjoyment” (2008: 87) and a commodity.

Baltermants himself is said to have insisted “that Grief is a photograph of peaceful Soviet citizens taken in order to document the horrors of war” (p. 205). Does the photograph qualify as a peace photograph? Based on a negative understanding of peace photography – depicting the need for peace by showing its absence – this question can be answered in the affirmative: by showing the horrors of war, Grief appeals to solidarity with the victims, supports the demand for peace and delegitimizes the use of physical force.

Grief is an ingredient of the photographic war archive of the 20th century. By revisiting this archive and discursively reconstructing its contents, we can now start exploring the peace potentialities of this image – an exploration facilitated by Shneer’s meticulous and only occasionally slightly tedious biography of this photograph.

David Shneer, Grief: The Biography of a Holocaust Photograph (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020).

Walter Benjamin, The Author as Producer, in The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility and Other Writings on Media, edited by Michael W. Jennings, Brigid Doherty and Thomas Y. Levin (Cambridge and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008), pp. 79–95.
Vasily Grossman, Stalingrad (London: Vintage, 2020).
Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003).