There are 4,000 pictures in the recently discovered archive of Moldovan photographer, Zaharia Cusnir. They show village life, weddings, funerals, formal portraits and faces that are young, old, fresh-faced and worn. There is hope in these faces, as well as sorrow, fear, and existential dread. There are portraits that show the pride that ordinary people take in a bicycle, an accordion, a new pair of boots, a coat, or a dress. And there are group photos; school groups, musical groups, family groups, farming groups.
It’s an extraordinarily beautiful depiction of life in the Soviet republic of Moldova between the 1950s and 1970s, and the story of how it came to be found is quite an origin story. The negatives were discovered by accident in the ruins of Cusnir’s old home (which has lain empty since his death in 1993) in the spring of 2016 by film student Victor Galusca. Since being discovered, they have been scanned, catalogued and published and the life of Cusnir examined in more detail.
Cusnir came to photography by accident. He originally trained to be a teacher, but that career choice went up in smoke when he shot a sheep thief (with a salt bullet – who knew?) and was sentenced to three years in prison. He laboured on a collective farm, and then, at the age of 43, he got hold of a medium-format Lubitel-2 camera (think low-budget Rolleiflex and you get the idea), and so his new career began.
It was a career in which Cusnir (probably – nobody knows for sure) combined his documentation of village life with the taking of pictures necessary for identity cards as well as the commissioning of some of the portraits you see here.
It’s an astonishingly rich collection, with the added spice of a certain roughness in composition that allows cracks to appear in the pictures that allow other elements in that go beyond the formality of the predominantly staged portraits. You see this in the picture of the lute player in his wide-brimmed almost sombrero like hat. You see it in the wedding photo of the couple who pose with two children, or in the boy who leans into the frame where the beautiful girl poses in her new hat and coat.
It’s also a document of a time, of a village that slowly transforms from the traditional to the modern, where religion, communism, ethnic difference, tradition, and modernity all create political, social, and economic conflicts.
Because the archive was discovered in the attic of an abandoned building, comparisons are made between Cusnir and Vivian Maier. But this archive is more about local faces which have a sculptural quality of expression. There are friendships in here, of all kinds, and at times a quiet performance takes place and (with the use of traditional carpet backdrops, reclining figures, and prized possessions) there are echoes of the studio work of Malick Sidibe, Seydou Keita, and others.
At times the framing is cockeyed; it is the tradition in Moldova to offer guests a drink, and on his photographic excursions would visit multiple homes and come home wasted. His daughter (who died in 2019) feared his photography trips and blamed photography for her father’s alcoholism.
And drink features large in some of Cusnir’s portraits. You can see it on the smiling face of the father in the family photo. His wife is at his side holding a very sleepy-looking baby, their daughter centre frame holding her doll, one finger in the hair. It’s a simple and very amiable take on the family photography were a certain family character comes through, right down to the granite faced grandma in the background.
Cusnir repeatedly photographs death. Crowds of family, mourners, and the curious look down into coffins at the face of the deceased, searching for clues of a life that is no longer visible in the features before them. Most of the time, the body is of an older woman, but then a young woman appears, and you see the eyes of grief-stricken children looking down into the waxen flesh of a woman who may once have been a mother, an aunt, a sister, a friend.
There is real grief in the work of Cusnir, there’s hardship, but there is also real joy and pride. It comes through the lives of rural people who wear their clothes, their homes, their animals, their rides, their partners with pride, who choose to be photographed, to have their lives iconicised through Cusnir’s modest Lubitel-2 camera.