How a Chance Discovery of Old Negatives Revealed a Master Photographer
He died nearly three decades ago in a tiny village at the bottom of the valley, unheralded and quickly forgotten, except by a few old-timers who still marvel at how Zaharia Cusnir, a poor farmhand with four children to raise, put so much time into taking photographs with a clunky Soviet camera.
“He was at every wedding and funeral with that thing,” recalled Vyacheslav Bulkhak, one of only a few dozen people, all pensioners, still living in the now mostly abandoned riverside hamlet of Rosietici, north of Chisinau, the capital of Moldova.
About the only other thing residents remember about Mr. Cusnir — at times a teacher, collective farmworker and blacksmith — was that he liked to drink, hardly unusual in a region of Moldova studded with vineyards. He grew his own grapes and made his own wine.
What really set him apart, though, was his passion for photography. He had no training and no fancy equipment, only a Lubitel, Russian for amateur, a cheap but sturdy twin-lens reflex Soviet knockoff of a German camera first produced before World War II.
Now, to the amazement of just about everyone, including his relatives, Mr. Cusnir is being hailed as an artist of rare talent, a master of composition whose works’ striking intimacy has been celebrated in exhibitions in France, Italy, Moldova, Poland and Romania. A show in Oregon is in the works for next year, while a publisher in Moldova has produced a coffee-table book collecting his oeuvre.
Nicolae Pojoga, a veteran war photographer and a professor at the Academy of Arts in Chisinau who helped uncover thousands of Mr. Cusnir’s long lost negatives, compared the Moldovan photographer to Vivian Maier, an American photographer. She left a trove of stunning images, taken while working as a nanny in Chicago, that was discovered after her death in 2009.
Mr. Cusnir’s photographs, mostly portraits of fellow villagers taken in the 1950s and ’60s, Mr. Pojoga said, were featured this year at Rencontres d’Arles, a major photography festival in southern France, and at a recent solo exhibition in Selvazzano Dentro, Italy.
While he was alive, the only time Mr. Cusnir attracted much attention outside the village was when, during a period of acute hunger, he shot at thieves trying to steal food from his garden. A Soviet court handed down a jail sentence of two or three years — his family cannot remember how many exactly.
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The verdict ended his career as a teacher and, after his release from prison, left him scrounging for work at the village’s collective farm, and biking to nearby hamlets to take photographs of mostly penniless peasants in return for a tiny cash fee or a handful of eggs.
“I never imagined that such a person could become so famous,” said Vera Bors, 78, who grew up in Rosietici and, like nearly everyone else there, was photographed by him. Mr. Cusnir took two portrait shots of Ms. Bors when she was a teenager, one of her standing alone in a summer dress that she had just finishing sewing and was very proud of, the second of her standing with a friend.
“He was always taking photos,” Ms. Bors said, recalling how she used to go with her girlfriends to his house by the river to see if Mr. Cusnir would photograph them. “We all wanted him to take our picture,” she said.
That was partly because Mr. Cusnir was the only person in the remote village with a camera, but also because he showed people as they wanted to be seen — not as stilted figures from Soviet propaganda or as doltish country bumpkins but as individuals brimming with character.
The photographs came to light by chance in 2016 when Victor Maxian, a student of Mr. Pojoga’s at the Academy of Arts, visited Rosietici to scout for somewhere to film a documentary as part of his studies. After selecting Mr. Cusnir’s abandoned house as a good place to work, he noticed some old negatives scattered in the dirt on the floor.
They had fallen to the ground through holes in the ceiling from a small attic where the photographer had stashed his photo archive before his death in 1993. Nobody had touched them since.
A few days later, Mr. Maxian returned to the village with his professor, Mr. Pojoga. They collected all of the images they could find, discovering nearly 4,000 negatives, many of them in the attic and damaged, and then spent months cleaning them and producing prints.
“As soon as I saw Zaharia’s pictures,” Mr. Pojoga said, referring to Mr. Cusnir by his first name, “I knew immediately that they were very special. This is a sensational find.”
Villagers were less impressed. Mr. Maxian said that when he showed some of the negatives to Ioana Cebotari, one of Mr. Cusnir’s three daughters, who lived nearby, she laughed, describing them “as just my father’s old junk.” She died in 2019, ending the family’s direct connection to the village.
Of Mr. Cusnir’s four children, only Maria Ratnikova, 80, is still alive. She lives in Sacramento, but still has vivid memories of growing up in Rosietici and of her father’s ardor for photography. Taking pictures, she said in a telephone interview, was never just a hobby or even a profession — though he did earn “a few kopecks,” she said, for shooting weddings and portraits — but was “a great love.”
He first “fell in love,” she said, after a relative who had served in the Soviet Army visited Rosietici with a camera he had bought while in military service and showed it to Mr. Cusnir, who had never seen one before.
From then on, Ms. Ratnikova said, her father was obsessed. He saved up to buy his Lubitel camera and turned one of the family home’s small two rooms into a dark room, where he developed black-and-white film at night while his children slept next door.
“He was up all night working with his film. I don’t know when he slept,” his daughter said. “He was a lovely, hard-working man. I was very lucky.”
Mr. Maxian said he had worked on plans to establish a museum in the village but put those on hold because of Russia’s invasion of neighboring Ukraine, the border of which lies less than 25 miles away.
“I’m not sure I want to invest my time in a place where we don’t know what will happen in the next year,” he said. “The possibility that the Russians could take Moldova is real.”
Few others expect that to happen, but Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the landing of at least two wayward missiles on Moldovan territory have revived old traumas left by ever-shifting borders.
When Mr. Cusnir was born, the youngest of 16 children, in 1912, his village was part of the Kingdom of Romania. But it fell under Soviet rule in 1940, when Stalin seized the Romanian region of Bessarabia as part of a 1939 deal with Hitler. The area returned briefly to Romania after it allied with Nazi Germany during World War II and Hitler’s army invaded Stalin’s empire. When the war ended, it passed again to the Soviet Union, where it stayed until Moldova declared itself an independent state in 1991.
In Rosietici today, as in many parts of Moldova, nostalgia for Soviet rule runs deep. The few remaining residents all speak Romanian at home rather than Russian, which many also know, but still look back on the Soviet era as a time of relative plenty and peace.
“Everyone had work, and children stayed here instead of going abroad,” Mr. Bulkhak said, gesturing at the now mostly empty village from an escarpment overlooking the valley. “There are no jobs here now. Only old people like me are left.”
A Soviet-era House of Culture has fallen into ruin and houses along the river have mostly crumbled.
The only new structures in Rosietici valley are wooden signs directing visitors to Mr. Cusnir’s old house and boards displaying blown-up prints of some of his photographs. They were put up by Mr. Maxian, who first found the photographs and who wants to get Moldovans, not just international photography aficionados, to appreciate Mr. Cusnir’s work.
He said he did not want to promote Soviet nostalgia — a delicate issue in a deeply divided country whose government wants to join the European Union and break out of Moscow’s orbit — but to get people to “look at these photos as a way to understand the present, to remember a past that they did not know about or had forgotten.”
Mr. Cusnir, he added, never romanticized Soviet village life or Soviet power: He avoided political themes and focused instead on the singularity of individuals.
For Mr. Pojoga, Mr. Maxian’s professor, a key detail of the photographer’s biography is that he used to gently mock Soviet authority by greeting villagers with the cry of “Hail Sergei Lazo,” a sarcastic reference to an early Bolshevik hero born in the area.
Proud of his own irreverence, he embraces Mr. Cusnir as a kindred and deeply moving spirit. “I’ve never felt so much emotion as I felt discovering these photographs,” Mr. Pojoga said, adding, “This is the great adventure of my life.”