The Archive of Zaharia Cuşnir (1912-1993)
by Maya Hristova·
What you are seeing here is a selection from the archive of Moldovan photographer Zaharia Cuşnir. Cuşnir, or Zaharia as most people knew him was born in 1912 in the village of Roşietici as the last of 16 children of a local businessman and a mother of German origins. These extraordinary 6x6 medium format images contain the visual history of a region and its people and would have been lost if it was not for Victor Galușca, a student at the Film Faculty in Chisinau.
The story of Galușca's discovery is a small marvel. In 2016, while conducting research in Roşietici for his documentary on traditional architecture, he encountered nearly 4000 negatives scattered in the attic of an abandoned house. "One day, I was walking through the village with my camera when I entered one of the houses. There I noticed some old negatives lying on the floor which I took with me. When after a week, I came back to the house I found another pile of negatives. I realized they must have fallen from somewhere and when I looked up I saw a hole in the ceiling leading to the attic. It was not easy to get up there, but when I finally made it I found thousands of negatives lying in the trash."
Galușca immediately recognized the importance of what he had discovered and soon after began with his research. What he found out was that the author of the photographs was a man named Zaharia Cuşnir who had passed in 1993. His daughter, at the time still living in a house nearby, did not consider the archive being of any particular value and quickly gave Galușca all the rights. She also shared her memories of her father coming home drunk after his photo sessions around the neighboring villages with pockets full of coins which he would throw around him. We can only speculate about why his family disapproved of his work as a photographer. "I think most Moldovian people, especially in the countryside, are drinking alcohol every day," Galușca says. "It is a kind of tradition to drink a glass of homemade wine with guests and people passing by your house, especially if it is a photographer. People used to invite him to their weddings, funerals and to take their portraits for legal documents. As he was the only photographer in the village most people knew him."
We learn that before the Second World War started, Cuşnir worked as a teacher for a year after studying at the pedagogical high school in Iasi. Back then, Moldova and Romania were one country and academic jobs were usually given to those of other nationalities. When the war began, Zaharia like many others was sent to a kolhoz where he had to endure hard manual labor such as removing stone boulders, digging up the frozen ground or breaking down walls. Later on and throughout his life, he worked as a blacksmith, but amongst the people living in the nearby villages he was known as a photographer. A woman that appears in Zaharia's photos remembers "I was young and beautiful, I put on my best dress and went to Zaharia. I asked him to take my photo because I wanted to send it to my boyfriend as a present."
We are also very much interested in Zaharia's formation as a photographer: "Zaharia learned photography from a nephew of his who came back home from the army. They split the local territory and Zaharia got responsibility for five villages: Rogojeni, Roşietici, Tsira, Cenusa, Casunca. However, I think that he developed his style on his own." And it is true - although he had hardly any influences, Cuşnir portrayed the people in the villages around in an extraordinary fashion reminding us of world-renowned classics such as August Sander or Walker Evans. We know that he would lend his subjects his bicycle to pose with or let them stand in front of a black blanket that he would bring with him. "He was performing physical work while having huge potential to develop his intellectual side. It seems that for him photography was a creative escape from the routine. His daughter said that he loved to take photos and he would often lock himself up in his room spending hours on developing."
Zaharia was working as a photographer for about 15 years between 1955 up until around 1972 and today his work serves as an invaluable chronicle of Moldovan village life at the time. "After the Second World War, Moldova struggled with famine and Stalin's repressions" Galușca continues. "The 50s were also the time when the process of collectivization was initiated. People were forced to give up their lands and join collective farms. Eventually, each village had its own organized collective farm which became the new reality, and although forced into it this new form of organization brought some stability after the war. People were building houses, having children and rural life started to blossom."
After his discovery and with the assistance of his photography professor at the Academy of Arts in Moldova Nicolae Pojoga, Galușca went back to Chisinau and started working on the cleaning, scanning and indexing of the nearly 4000 negatives. Recently, he made about 800 of them accessible through a website the two created facilitating further research into the history and culture of the country and its visual history. "In Moldova, we do not have another photographer who has managed to document a cross-section of society at the time the way Zaharia did. Each photo is extremely valuable because it contains new information about how people lived here including poor people who were otherwise not considered important enough to be photographed due to their social status. This was one of the reasons why I decided to upload the archive on the internet. It is our history and it belongs to all of us."
This incredible story, like the one about the discovery of the archive of Vivian Meier, reminds us that very often the work of so-called amateur photographers can be of overwhelming artistic quality and historic value and that there is so much talent and photographic history that is yet to be uncovered. While some of the images appear quite contemporary, most of them seem as if they were taken more than a century ago. "The most interesting thing I learned from Zaharia's work is the difference between life in Moldova in the past and now. I came to his village to document the process of depopulation. Today, I am further working to understand why people left their houses and villages." Galușca’s discovery makes it hard to conceive what life in Eastern Moldova was like only 50 years ago and opens up the question about the validity of our perception regarding the universality of globalized culture today.
And all taken with a Soviet knockoff of a Rollei, one sees from the NYTimes. The excellence of the Rollei continues. I recall still American GIs returned from the War. One seldom heard of their returning with booty (they were, after all, so much more prosperous than the unfortunates whose land they were occupying) the two things you heard of them taking were Lugers and cameras, largely Rolleis, I believe. The genius of Cesnir was of course in his mind, and the parallel with Vivian Meier is prominent. But the magic in his case seems in his connection to his people. Vivian Meier’s genius lay in her isolation, a profoundly and sadly American feature of her accomplishment. Fairfield Porter famously said, “Being an artist in America is like being a citizen of the moon” and it is almost as true now as it was then. Thank you thank you for the gift to us all!…
Fantastic images. It there a high quality book in the works or possibly a way to buy an original print?
Indeed. The photographs are driven by a stringent, composed aesthetic of great beauty. However: with all artefacts or cultures, we only know those that are visible, not the ones that are hidden. We unduly focus on the famous, and neglect to uncover the unknow. There are (presumably) many anonymous artists or photographers around we do not know, whose works end up on the trash heap — inspite of their value; and there are many artists amoung the famous whose fame is a matter of a cheap consumerism (and is not deserved).
I couldn’t unglue myself from the images…! It’s breathtaking. Looking forward to see the exhibit in Oregon in 2023. It’s so easy for me, being from Poland, to identify myself with the images and people there. What an amazing discovery we should be thankful for…!