In the spring of 2016, film student Victor Galusca was exploring a sleepy village in his native Moldova when the 23-year-old noticed some photographic negatives in the rubble of an abandoned house.
The discarded pictures were the life’s work of Zaharia Cusnir, an unknown amateur photographer who died in 1993.
The villager struggled professionally under the communist regime and battled alcoholism, yet he left behind some of the most brilliant portraits of rural life ever captured on film.
For the past three years, with the permission of the photographer’s daughter, who dismissed her father’s work as “garbage,” Galusca and his photography teacher have been cleaning and scanning the stunning find, which they released on a website in January.
Galusca, who is a freelance contributor to RFE/RL’s Moldovan Service, agreed to share images here showing his discovery of one of the greatest chroniclers of life behind the Iron Curtain.
Two villagers pose for a portrait with glasses brimful with wine.
A woman fixes on the camera with a piercing gaze as kids loiter in the background.
Villagers in fancy dress during a New Year’s carnival.
These images were shot by Zaharia Cusnir between the 1950s and ’70s in and around Rosietici, a village 122 kilometers north of the Moldovan capital, Chisinau.
Cusnir (center) was born in 1912 as the youngest of 16 children.
After being imprisoned for three years for shooting and injuring a sheep thief with a salt bullet, the trained teacher labored on a collective farm. But at age 43 he discovered his calling when he acquired a Soviet-made Lubitel 2 camera.
After taking photography lessons from one of his nephews, Cusnir began cycling from village to village in his region, shooting technically perfect, scrappily framed portraits.
Cusnir’s pictures are unique for being at once posed and static, yet bursting with life.
His subjects react in a way that indicates he offered a magnetic personality behind the camera.
A boy pedals his Ukraina, a Soviet-made bicycle produced in Kharkiv, Ukraine.
Villagers with their GAZ-51 truck, a model that was ubiquitous across the Soviet Union.
Young men with their trousers clipped to keep them out of their bicycle chains strike a complex pose for Cusnir’s camera.
Cusnir also kept one eye on the incidental bystanders on the periphery of his photo “sets,” as is obvious in this and the following photos.
Galusca believes Cusnir was able to afford the film needed for his hobby partly by selling prints that villagers could use in their identification cards – a mandatory document in the police state of communist Moldova.
A villager, posing apparently after finishing off a bottle of his favorite alcoholic beverage.
Cusnir’s daughter, who died in the summer of 2019, remembers her father returning on his bicycle roaring drunk from his photo explorations.
It’s a tradition in Moldovan villages to offer guests a glass of wine or homemade liquor. As Cusnir cycled from house to house he knocked back so much alcohol his children came to dread his photography trips.
Although there is no indication of violence, his daughter described “yelling” and “impossible” behavior, and blamed Cusnir’s alcoholism on his hobby.
But Cusnir’s daughter also described her father as a “romantic” who would often pluck flowers and tuck them into his lapel before charming people into pausing for a portrait.
A milkmaid in front of a “table of achievements” that tracked milk production on Soviet dairy farms.
Today the village (pictured) where Cusnir lived among hundreds of neighbors and relatives has only around 40 people remaining.
The abandoned house where Cusnir’s photographs were found in 2016.
Galusca inspects some of the 6×6 centimer negatives he retrieved and his photography teacher carefully cleaned.
Most of the nearly 4,000 images were discovered in the attic of the abandoned house (pictured).
When Galusca spoke to the photographer’s daughter, she was uninterested in the collection and described the photographs as garbage that “no one needs.”
But thanks to the painstaking digital archiving of nearly 4,000 images put together by Galusca and his teacher, this forgotten photographer from an obscure village in rural Moldova is likely to become known around the world.
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