Jeffrey Kastner on Richard J. Scheuer

On a December evening in 1933, an English teenager named Patrick Leigh Fermor boarded a steamship in London bound for the Hook of Holland. Disembarking the next morning, Fermor walked into the snowy Dutch countryside with a rucksack full of clothes and gear from an army surplus shop to begin what would become a thirteen-month journey, on foot, to Istanbul. Along the way, he slept in workhouses, barns, and castles and drank with farmers, aristocrats, and budding Nazis, finally arriving at his destination on New Year’s Day 1935. Though he had recorded his experiences in journals—and eventually went on to have a distinguished career as a travel writer—it wasn’t until 1977 that Fermor published A Time of Gifts, the first volume of what would ultimately be a trilogy about his formative adventure, and one of the genre’s richest achievements.

Roughly seven months after Fermor left London, seventeen-year-old Richard J. Scheuer sailed from New York with his father, Simon, for Le Havre, France, where they began an eight-week journey around Europe, visiting Spain, Italy, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Poland, and Russia. Dick, as the younger Scheuer was known, had brought along a camera and took photographs everywhere he went. On his return, he had contact sheets made, but none of the images were printed until roughly eighty years later, after his son Dan discovered his late father’s negatives in an old cardboard box at the family’s home and enlisted a friend, Charles Seton, a photographer and photographic technician, to help restore them.

Beyond the wildly delayed way each body of work finally came to light, what unites Fermor’s travelogue and Scheuer’s documentary project—the latter of which was recently the subject of this modest but engrossing exhibition at the Jewish Institute of Religion at Hebrew Union College, a Reform Jewish seminary in New York’s Greenwich Village—is the uncanny mix of innocence and portentousness generated by the specifics of their shared temporality. In many ways, they are perfectly pendant. Fermor took no pictures, and no journals from Scheuer’s travels survive, so each account fleshes out the other. The two young men, strangers to each other yet joined by some force of history, ended up recording the same moment in time as oblivious witnesses to a continent on the brink of World War II.

The forty works in the exhibition, mostly shots of regular people in their everyday surroundings, confirm Scheuer’s compositional precocity. A skilled street photographer virtually avant la lettre, he had an eye for the revealing candid moment, stemming in no small part, one imagines, from the fact that he himself must have cut such an unassuming figure, being not all that much older than the gaggle of placid-faced French girls in summer chapeaus he captured in one image, or the members of a teenage kazoo band performing on a Moscow street in another. A number of pictures here featured vendors and customers in markets around Yugoslavia—showing both customs and costumes that suggest the nineteenth as much as the twentieth century—including a remarkable shot of a woman standing on a curb in Sarajevo, a black veil framing her face in a way that all but disembodies it. But none of the images crystalize the puncturing, melancholic “that-has-been” identified by Roland Barthes as the operative essence of the photograph as much as the ten taken in Warsaw’s Jewish Quarter. A smiling man outside a women’s clothing store, a watermelon seller with a thick hunk of fruit in his hand, a burly shoemaker who turns to the camera with a wide grin: These subjects would likely not have known that, next door in Germany, the country’s president, Paul von Hindenberg, had just died, and that Adolf Hitler had successfully merged party and state into what would become a murderous totalitarian machine. And they certainly could not have imagined a future that we now know as historical fact: During a summer six years later, that machine would build a ten-foot-high wall around their neighborhoods and transform them first into a ghetto, and then later a concentration camp.

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