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Adolfo Kaminsky, the Guardian Angel Photographer, Dies at 97

The photographer and forger, who had thousand lives, passed away on Monday, January 9, 2022 at the age of 97. A king of false papers, he saved thousands of lives during World War II. He also delivered a remarkable and unknown photographic work.

He was a discreet hero. One of those who act in the shadows. An anonymous guardian angel who gave part of his life to others. The photographer and forger Adolfo Kaminsky died on Monday, January 9, at the age of 97.

He was a figure of the French Resistance, the “king of forgeries” as he was nicknamed, and saved thousands of Jews during the Second World War, thanks to his talent and the fake papers he would deliver them to escape the German repression. A fight that he continued for 30 years, bringing his expertise to the FLN during the Algerian war, to the opponents of the Spanish, Portuguese and Greek dictatorships, to movements such as the Prague Spring, to those of liberation in Africa, to the American deserters during the Vietnam war… Untiring work for freedom.

Born in Buenos Aires in 1925 to a Jewish family originally from Russia, Adolfo Kaminsky was also a remarkable photographer, offering a humanistic work close to Willy Ronis or Robert Doisneau images. In 2019, the Museum of Jewish Art and History devoted a remarkable exhibition to him, paying tribute to his photographic work.

Adolfo Kaminsky: the many faces of humanity

The bookseller, Paris, 1948 © Adolfo Kaminsky

Adolfo Kaminsky was fascinated by the many faces of humanity, faces that stare back at you with a thoughtful, intriguing gaze, with a touch of grace, with a look that lets you glimpse into their soul.

Take for example the bookseller photographed in Paris after the war: surrounded by his books and cats, as if one couldn’t have one without the other, he sells bargain dictionaries, Parisian yellow pages for 1948, and a Loire Valley guidebook.

The focus on odd jobs was a constant feature in Kaminsky’s images. Here he portrayed a knife-grinder, there a ticket-puncher, and there an organ player. He was mesmerized by all the small trades that shape the city.

Perhaps they remind him of his own stint as a forger, a skill he mastered during World War II to dupe the German occupier and save Jews, and which he put in the service of revolutions in Latin America and the revolt against the dictatorships in Spain, Portugal, and Greece in the 1950s and 60s.

« I plunged body and soul into photography »

Lonely woman waiting, Paris, 1946 © Adolfo Kaminsky

It was in the aftermath of wartime devastation that Adolfo Kaminsky, born in 1925, threw himself into photography. “All my friends had left and, to overcome loneliness, I plunged body and soul into photography. Every night, I would climb onto Paris rooftops to catch the city in slumber,” he recalled.

Using his Rolleiflex, he recorded private moments on film, creating precious tableaus: a woman leaning against a wall; a couple walking along a boulevard sheltered by an umbrella on a drizzly day; a bigmouthed flea-market vendor posing next to his beat-up car.

But Paris was not the only subject of Kaminsky’s photographs. He also aimed his camera at the Marseille harbor, the mysterious city of Adrar in Algeria, and centuries-old trees in Lebanon.

Wherever he went, however, he would try to find humanity, which puts him in the same rank as Sabine Weiss, Robert Doisneau, and Willy Ronis.

Port of Marseille, 1953 © Adolfo Kaminsky
Self-portrait at the age of 19, Paris, 1944 © Adolfo Kaminsky

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