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Fatal Edit

Michael Mitchell

By choosing a moment in time, the photographer is rejecting all other moments, whether past or future. Photography is an editing medium. When a photographer frames up an image he is editing reality—excluding everything below the frame line, everything above it and all to the right and the left. Significance is ascribed only to what is bounded by the four edges of the frame. It’s like pointing, but more precise and permanent. And it has more authority.

This is just the initial editorial step. When photographers return home, they select from these edits. Many exposures on contact sheets or digital files are mere warm-ups, tentative sketches, missed opportunities. Reviewing them in tranquility, photographers find themselves discovering their subjects. They recognize themes, build on familiar tropes and inform themselves. It can be like taking one’s own temperature.

Photographers review their exposures, make “selects” and file them for further editing. It can be difficult and intense work, work inflected by what they already know and recognize, work that may even be revised years later in the light of accumulated experience and evolved concerns. They are not always right the first time. The possibilities can be legion.

Once the photographer has achieved a final edit, he can enhance the image to help it better communicate its message. He may do this by altering contrast to change the picture’s tonality. Burning and dodging (lightening or obscuring individual elements within the frame) further tune the image. The scale at which the print is output is also part of the message. Photographs that impress when presented at large, painting-sized scales may look very ordinary within the confines of a printed page. Scale shouts. It can take some time to see through it.

All of these steps are essentially editorial. And they are all the photographer has in his toolbox. A painter can seduce with a glistening brush stroke; a photographer has only form, content and time. Photography has an apparent facility, but doing it brilliantly—being original and telling a story well—is a major challenge. Most of the millions of photographs made daily are mere records and as mute as stones. Photography can be a very tough medium. A photographer who can’t edit his own material is little more than a photocopier. He’s as dumb as a traffic camera. Editing is everything.

The photography of Henryk Ross is a special case. Before the outbreak of war, Ross was a photojournalist, a practitioner of an often artless profession devoted to recording facts and basic storytelling rather than producing images with aesthetic ambition. After the outbreak of war and the establishment of the Lodz Ghetto in 1940, Ross found employment within the ghetto, taking photographs for the Statistics Department of the Ältestenrat (Council of Elders), an elite group that administered the ghetto under the watchful eyes of the Germans. His physical survival was possible only if he produced pictures useful to his overseers. However, his spiritual and psychic survival was dependent upon his personal work—his ambition to be witness and memory for his fellow Jews.

These “unofficial” pictures—which Ross shot through cracks in doors or by quickly flicking his overcoat—were made without the benefit of a viewfinder or the luxury of time. They roughly record the rail-borne traffic in human souls, forced labour, disease and executions of unbearable bleakness. The Lodz Ghetto statistics are horrific: tens of thousands of people, mostly Jews and some Roma and Sinti, were confined behind barbed wire in just 2.4 square kilometres. More than 45,000 were to die of starvation and disease. By May 1942, some 55,000 Lodz Ghetto residents had already been deported to the death camp at Kulmhof (formerly Chełmno nad Nerem). When the Red Army liberated Lodz in January 1945, 877 Jews remained there of the 204,000 that had passed through during the five-year life of the ghetto. Eight hundred were forced to dig their own graves. Ross’s photography practice was one in extremis.

He documented these things, and also the mundane aspects of ghetto life. The ghetto had more than fifty schools and daycares, a hospital and at least 100 factories. Ross shot them all, paying attention to the poorest and sickest as well as to the relatively comfortable lives of the ghetto’s Jewish elite.

Toward the end of the war, Ross and his wife, Stefania, sealed his negatives in iron jars that were in turn secured in a wooden box lined with tar. Film, iron, tar and wood—all were buried in the ghetto earth. It was nearly winter. Digging was hard work.

Lodz was liberated by the Red Army in January 1945. In the spring of that year, a small group met at 12 Jagielonska Street and exhumed Ross’s box. The jars were now free to speak. Ross moved his negatives to Palestine after the war. He and Stefania emigrated there in 1956, and he then had the time and the resources to begin to edit and print his material.

In a sense, two edits had already been completed. The first was by circumstance: all the constraints that had been put on his photography—by the Germans, by the Judenrat, by spies and gossips. Shooting from the hip through a gap in your overcoat or a crack in a door seriously inflects the image. It can’t be more than an artless grab at a fact. But it’s immediate; it’s urgent.

The second edit was executed by the very earth of the ghetto itself. Groundwater and contaminates slowly invaded the entombed film. Emulsions began to peel from the flammable nitrate bases of the rolls. In the darkroom, light shone unimpeded through the damaged nitrate bases, occasionally creating an accidental but visually and emotionally effective proscenium arch framing the subject. Those were the lucky accidents, as great numbers of negatives were terminally edited into silence. The burial that had preserved had also destroyed.

When, very late in his life, Ross began to cut up his contact sheets, he reassembled them into sequential rows that he pasted into a notebook with pages slightly larger than standard letter-sized paper. These pages look like conventional contact sheets, except they are bigger and contain more images—often slightly more than forty. A standard roll of 35mm film cut into strips and contacted usually yields six rows of six images, for a total of three dozen exposures. A contact sheet begins on the upper left with the first exposure made on the roll. It ends six rows down on the bottom right with the last. It has a fixed internal chronology that is marked by sequential latent edge numbers. In the case of Ross’s Leica photography, these numbers go from one to thirty-six on each roll of film.

The bound pages of Ross’s paste-up—there are seventeen of them—initially look like a narrative. He has added his own set of numbers in ink to the rebate (edge) of the rolls. If this sequence, which begins with his numeral one on the upper left of his page one, is a storyboard, it is a most opaque and hermetic one. What was he trying to tell us, and himself, as he tried to assert control over his material after two significant edits had already been executed by the fates? Is this notebook of contact prints a narrative sequence? Or are these pages, so often filled with mysterious miscellany, merely an inventory, a catalogue, a source book?

The initial frame on page one shows an old man being helped by the ghetto’s Jewish police to board a tram at the Radegast train station in Lodz. We deduce that the tram is bound for an extermination camp. There are no dates or captions anywhere in Ross’s paste-up, but presumably this represents the deportations of nearly 16,000 “non-productive” elderly people and children that took place in 1942. Then, several more conjoined tram photographs are followed by images of ghetto inmates talking through a boundary fence and crowding through the entrance to the Prison at Czarnecki Street within the ghetto. This was the staging point for deportations and death. Next, we see two men; one, in a lab coat, reclines on the floor, gazing at the cover of a very large book celebrating Marysin, a garden-filled neighbourhood in the northeast of the ghetto that housed the Jewish elite. This is followed by a heavily damaged frame of a small outdoor gathering of Jews, which is attached to an adjacent frame of people marching to deportation transport with their bags. Next are three similar frames showing people standing around a horse-drawn hearse. By 1942 there were eighty to 100 deaths caused by starvation or disease per day.

In the next frame, we see a pair of well-dressed men inspecting excavations in an open field with the wooden framing for a large new building in the background. Then Ross shows us a trio—two ghetto police flanking a well-dressed man in an overcoat—standing before a small building whose only window comprises four narrow panes in its central entry door. It looks like a little jail. We now return to the excavations, where the same three men pose. The small building turns up again, with a man, smartly dressed in a fedora, jacket and tie, posing in front of it. Suddenly we jump to three frames shot inside a bakery. The staff mug for the camera. We then leave the bakery for city streets, where sacks, presumably of Kulmhof victims’ clothing, are piled in rows along the curb and in a churchyard. People stroll by them. Cut to a narrow, muddy alley where a crowd jostles outside a soup kitchen. Next, there are three pictures of a ruined synagogue. Finally, we are presented with eight different Litzmannstadt (Lodz) Ghetto Judenpost stamps, for which Ross did the artwork. Most feature a portrait of the chairman of the ghetto’s JudenÄlteste (Elder of the Jews), the infamous Chaim Mordechai Rumkowski. Page one ends with two similar images, in which a small group of people in a fenced yard stands with their backs to the camera. They seem to be mostly women, and the yellow stars on their backs tell us they’re Jews. What are they witnessing? We aren’t shown. What has this whole page and its forty-three pictures been telling us? We don’t know. We’re confused despite this being a carefully numbered sequence. This is only the first of seventeen pages and the viewer is already puzzled.

The hand-lettered numbers march on. The second page begins with a sequence showing civilians taking coal from a railcar under the supervision of the ghetto police. This is followed by several deportation images in which long rows of ghetto “inmates” lug their possessions through a bleak wintry landscape. The sequence jumps back into town to record a cart being loaded with bread. We then see a street person being comforted, followed by a few frames of ghetto residents carrying loaves on the street or consuming soup in the rail yards or riding a tram. After this tram ride, we are suddenly witnessing Ross’s marriage. A half dozen festive wedding photographs of Ross and Stefania are followed by what appear to be more deportations by foot or rail and then a single frame of outdoor food distribution. Six cryptic frames that show a cheerful crowd supervised by the Jewish police are followed by a visit to the hospital, including the X-ray department. The seven-frame hospital sequence is interrupted by a gardening episode featuring a scarecrow ironically adorned with the familiar yellow star. The remaining hospital frames seem to record medical staff conducting surgery on a prone patient. (These were all “show” pictures of services provided in the ghetto, intended to reassure and flatter the German invaders. All is well: there are no horrors.) As the second page concludes with a sombre portrait of some ghetto administration staff, the viewer can be excused for thinking he has just experienced an image sequence as irrational and random as a shuffled deck of cards.

The third page of Ross’s assembly appears to focus on the ghetto’s elite. Various officials, well dressed or in uniform, present themselves to the camera in small groups. After depicting people posing in an elegant horse-drawn carriage, Ross shows us a humbler crowd digging for coal, tending a cabbage patch and scrubbing a floor, as well as men posing with poles and a pile of earth. A portrait of two blowtorches resting on a curb is followed by pallets and crates stacked in a warehouse under an elegant chandelier. We then jump to a soup-kitchen series followed by dapper people smiling from a tram. The page ends with workers sorting through sacks piled on the street, followed by a meeting, a lumberyard, an emaciated man with an empty plate and platoons of Jewish police marching past the camera. The final two images record more deportations.

What are we to make of all this? This jumble of images reminds us that editing and sequencing are necessary to tell stories in photographs. The medium can be incredibly mute when shorn of words. It can show hunger and suffering, describe work and suggest social hierarchy, but it needs the support of text to convey more complex ideas. Moreover, some conventions bonded to the act of making a photograph are so strong they dilute meaning. We know that the photographer’s subjects are living in extremis, yet, when confronted with a camera, almost everyone smiles.

And so Ross’s album unfolds. Some pages are coherent. Page four is devoted exclusively to the deportations. Some of its frames are tragically disarming, as deportees grin for the camera; they clearly don’t understand that the Kulmhof death camp lies in wait. Pages eight and nine are largely devoted to showcasing ghetto industries. Rumkowski believed the best survival strategy was to make the ghetto so productive that the Germans couldn’t afford to shut it down and carry out the Final Solution, so there were at least 100 factories within the ghetto walls. These so-called ressorts produced everything from military supplies and uniforms to high-fashion ladies’ hats for Berlin department stores. Ross shows us mattress factories, bakeries, millenaries and garment workshops. As the workers were paid largely in food—only 600 calories daily by 1942—the Lodz Ghetto was a very productive operation that yielded a profit of some 350 million Reichsmark. The Lodz Ghetto did operate longer than any other, but in the end there were only about 800 survivors out of a population of more than 200,000. Even Rumkowski, the “King of Lodz,” was sent to die at Auschwitz.

While page ten focuses on the deployment of ghetto residents as draft animals, most of the remaining pages are a bewildering pastiche of unrelated themes. In a mere thirty-five frames, the eleventh page jumps from a human-draft photograph to soup distribution to fence gossip to a public hanging to weaving and braiding to millinery and then to a bulk potato delivery. A couple of meetings are also tossed in the mix.

The twelfth page opens with several images of a disastrous rail delivery of tons of inedible frozen potatoes, then abruptly shows us an interior, where a man in a suit and tie poses with two women for a couple of frames. Next, we are taken to the street, and the Central Prison’s entry gate. We then see some interior portraits of nursing staff before returning to our well-dressed gent posing in front of a stove with a pair of female friends. The balance of the page is a series of street scenes: vendors, small crowds, people going about their business. It is cold. There are piles of snow and everyone is bundled up. In the last two rows, the season has changed—shirtsleeves—as men and women struggle to move heavily laden wagons and toilet-waste carts.

On the following page, we learn what was in those overburdened wagons: the clothes of the Kulmhof dead. We witness workers sorting through heaps of victims’ clothing. Perhaps Ross is suggesting that this gruesome task was just another ghetto industry, for the balance of the page is a tour through millinery, tailoring, braiding and yarn-spinning workshops, with a few office portraits in the mix. We also visit a construction site.

While page thirteen seems to demonstrate a certain coherence, it also introduces a tendency that confuses all the remaining pages of Ross’s assembly: repetition. We’ve already seen his photographs of braid production—the whole series is on page eleven—and the wintry street scenes near the top of thirteen are also on the previous page. We’ve already seen the carts of deportees’ clothing, too. Why are they here again?

Duplication marks all the remaining pages. The second-row photograph on page fourteen of a woman reaching for a string of feathers destined for high-fashion hats will appear no fewer than four times on pages sixteen and seventeen. The screw press and operator on the fourteenth page reappears on fifteen, as do some kitchen scenes. The press operator is also on sixteen, which repeats street-barrier scenes from page twelve. Moreover, the strict numerical sequence distinguishing the first couple of pages collapses. It first begins to slip on the third page, which concludes two shy of the correct count. By the last page, the sequence is so disturbed by misnumberings and repetitions that the entire endeavour becomes a puzzle. What are we to make of a page like fifteen, which begins with a first grade report card but proceeds to present various images of Stefania, soup kitchens, deportations, social gatherings of the ghetto elite, factory production and children in a hospital ward?

What are we to make of this assembly that limps to a conclusion on its last page with a miscellany of images that we have already been shown? In one instance, a four-frame sequence of women working at a long table is repeated a second time on the same page. And we’ve already seen half of this sequence on the preceding page, as well as on page eight.

The chronology is also off: we encounter what seem to be surviving extermination camp prisoners celebrating their January 1945 liberation on page six, barely a third of the way into the overall assembly. Earlier events are depicted later in Ross’s paste-up.

It is clear that this “album” is not a final edit or storyboard, as Ross stopped well short of choosing the definitive exposure from his various takes of a subject. He repeatedly pasted up contact strips that consist of two, three, even four frames of the same scene, distinguished only by slight changes of perspective and time. He may have thought he would have the will and energy to review the material at a later date. We all leave behind unfinished projects.

Photographers edit, then edit and edit again in order to communicate effectively. The early stages are just raw material. Despite the unfinished and provisional state of Ross’s notebook, we can still get a sense of the story he took photographs to tell. By sheer frequency, we can see the themes that resonated with him. For example, he inserts his photographs of human draft animals on page after page. They appear at least sixty times, occupying nearly half the total pages. This seems to be a central metaphor for Ross; presumably these individuals stand for loss of freedom and dignity and even life itself, as those ordered to pull carts carrying barrels of human excrement frequently contracted fatal typhus or other diseases.

Other repeated themes are the line-up, marching columns, food distribution, urgent information exchanges, collective work and even the occasional party. This is not a silent world. Life goes on. People talk. And, just as in peacetime, there are the privileged and well fed—mostly officials and Rumkowski’s associates—as well as the poor, exploited and hungry.

Photographers make pictures in order to understand the world. When they find they have reached their limits in the medium, they stop. Ross lost interest in making photographs after Lodz. Photography and the horrors of life in the Lodz Ghetto were inextricably linked in his mind. He had to move on or face paralysis. He did publish his testimonial book, The Last Journey of the Jews of Lodz, in 1962, and testified at the Eichmann Trial in 1961. He and Stefania only stayed with it for two days: “We didn’t have it in us,” he said.1 Sometime in the late 1970s, he made up this inventory of contacts from his wartime shooting. We know he’d done it by 1978, because it appears in David Perlow’s 1979 documentary Memories of the Eichmann Trial. In that film, Ross shows some of his photographs, jumping in no particular order from page to page and image to image. This suggests that while he may have set out to tell a story in pictures, his paste-up soon devolved into an inventory of the best surviving negatives.

As a rough catalogue of salvageable negatives, it is raw evidence, not a strict narrative. It winds down into a kind of entropy: disorder, repeats, restarts, stasis. It ends in confusion.


Ross had undoubtedly had enough. He’d lived through the events and he’d revisited them when the box was exhumed, once again when printing his material in Israel, again when creating his book and once more at the Eichmann Trial, where he sat face to face with the man with the “eyes of a snake.” “I was shaking uncontrollably, everything came back to life,” he said. For Stefania, seeing Eichmann again was an encounter with the Angel of Death. Once more, she felt it was her turn next.

When, toward the end of his life, Ross tried to bring order to his material, he couldn’t do it. He and Stefania had risked their lives more than once to make sure a great crime would be remembered, and now they deserved some peace. As Ross was no longer a photographer, he was no longer obliged to be an editor. His evidence stood, despite some disorder. One can’t tidy up evil. Ross owed us nothing.

With special thanks to Donald Rance, Reference Librarian at the AGO, for research materials and innumerable photocopies, and Martina Oehmsen-Clark for translations of German signage and documents within Ross’s scrapbook.

1 All direct quotations are from Memories of the Eichmann Trial, directed by David Perlov (Jerusalem: The Israeli Broadcasting Authority, Channel 1, 1979).