- Images in Spite of All: Four Photographs from Auschwitz
Georges Didi-Huberman's extraordinary book is simultaneously an excursus on the only four photographs known to be taken by Jews within the brutal world of Auschwitz-Birkenau and a profound meditation on the status of the image as a means of historical analysis. On the surface, the book combines two separate contributions: first, four essays written on the Auschwitz photos and included in a catalog accompanying an exhibition of photographs of the camp shown in Paris in 2001; and second, a longer series of chapters responding to the firestorm that erupted from this exhibition and his essay, particularly the responses from the intellectual circle around Claude Lanzmann, the famed director of Shoah. But Didi-Huberman's original essay and his response to his critics form a syncretic whole. He defends the need to attend closely to images if we are to construct a dialectical interpretation of history that avoids the traps of mysticism or idealism. Readers will be particularly interested in his close analysis of the four photographs that firmly situate the agency of those Jews who risked so much to take them. To Didi-Huberman, the photos recover their individual identities even in the face of their collective destruction. Their act, "in spite of all" that the genocide implied, shows the power of images as evidence, testimony, and, here, as resistance. They lead Didi-Huberman to his more general argument about the centrality of these images for understanding the dynamics of history. As he states: "The question of images is at the heart of the great darkness of our time, the 'discontent of our civilization.' We must know how to look into images to see that of which they are survivors. So that history, liberated from the pure past (that absolute, that abstraction), might help us to open the present of time" (182).
I must admit to approaching this book with some trepidation. Didi-Huberman is known primarily for his profound contributions to art historiography and essays on art historical topics from the plague forward. From the perspective of Holocaust Studies and modern Jewish History, his book could have been another example of the art historian who dips once or twice into the weeds of the Nazi era only to return to more "appropriate" art historical subjects. But Didi-Huberman's project, from the opening chapter, shows itself as a serious investigation that draws on his greatest strengths already [End Page 93] proven in his interpretations of Fra Angelico and others: this book takes the close formal analysis of a work of art as evidence for both systems of thought and the phenomenological experiences fundamental to the status of representation and history. Didi-Huberman shows provocatively how we need the work of an art historian to begin the analysis of these disturbing images.
He begins by taking us to a most difficult place and time, the world of the Sonderkommando, the Jewish inmates in Auschwitz-Birkenau whom the SS forced to administer the gassing and cremating of thousands of Jewish victims. These four photos infamously show two parts of this process from August 1944, when the Hungarian Jews were being murdered. Two photos (taken inside the gas chamber of Crematorium V, looking out) show the burning of the gassed bodies in an open pit; two additional photos show a group of women, naked in the copse of birch trees southeast of the crematorium, presumably waiting to be led to the gas chambers. These grotesque pictures reveal key aspects of the genocidal process. Didi-Huberman analyses the photos by using the explicit postwar testimony of some of the few survivors of the Sonderkommando, the reports on the resistance movement in the camp and town, and his own close visual analysis. Specifically, he focuses on Alex, the Greek Jew who most likely took the photo. The art historian emphasized Alex's phenomenological status that can be partially reconstructed from the angle of view, the framing, and other...