New York Photo Review
Volume 4 Issue 19 April 30 to May 6, 2013

The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino

A Life in Photography
Roman Vishniac
Roman Vishniac Rediscovered
R. Wayne Parsons

Photo by Roman Vishniac . Source: icp.org
Roman Vishniac, "Grandaughter and Grandfather, Warsaw" 1939.
Roman Vishniac is best known for his photographs documenting a vanished way of life. The resulting gap in human culture was not a consequence of the usual causes such as climate change, modernization, economic development, or social upheaval, but rather of a deliberate policy by Adolf Hitler and his Nazi henchmen to murder six million innocent European Jews.

Vishniac (1897 – 1990) lived an eventful life, a consequence not only of what appears to have been an activist mentality and a strong work ethic, but also of the tumultuous times he experienced. Born in Russia in 1897, he studied biology and zoology at a Moscow university, but emigrated to Berlin in 1920 to escape the Bolsheviks. In the 1920s and 30s, he pursued photography, exploring life in Berlin, the Nazi rise to power in the 1930s, and Jewish life. His travels around Europe after war broke out led to his arrest in France in 1940, where he spent three months in an internment camp. But he was released and emigrated to the US, arriving in New York City on New Year’s Day 1941. He went into business in New York as a portrait photographer, but also documented life in the city, especially of Jewish immigrants as they adapted to their new lives. In 1947 he was sent on commission to photograph refugees in displaced persons camps and the destruction in Berlin left over from the war.

This exhibition covers all aspects of Vishniac’s career, though the main focus is on the years 1935-38, when Vishniac was commissioned by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the world's largest Jewish relief organization, to photograph Jewish life in Eastern Europe, both in urban centers such as Warsaw and Krakow and in villages in Poland and Ukraine. Aside from his later scientific photography, it is apparent that Vishniac was a “people person,” as virtually all of the images in this exhibition show ordinary people in daily life. A few are formal portraits, but most are candid shots of people in their customary routine. A testament to his skills as a photographer is that several of these photos were used to support fundraising and humanitarian efforts on behalf of Jews by Jewish aid groups. There are many outstanding images; perhaps the best known is his photograph of “Grandfather and Granddaughter” conversing on a street.

Especially interesting are his photos of Berlin in the 1920s and 30s. Some of these show a marked sense of visual humor, as in his image of polar bears in the Berlin zoo taken from a vantage point that gives the impression the zoo visitors are behind bars while being observed by the bears. A much more serious and ominous image is a 1933 photo of his young daughter Mara standing in front of a political poster of German Chancellor Paul von Hindenburg and Adolf Hitler with the Orwellian slogan “The marshal and the corporal: Fight with us for peace and equal rights.” (Don’t forget that Hitler was not elected chancellor in the 1932 elections that brought the Nazis to power: he was appointed by the aged von Hindenburg as a solution to a political crisis precipitated by the failure of any party to win a majority in the elections.)

As a photographer/artist Vishniac displayed versatility. For example, his 1939 photos taken in Werkdorp, a training camp in the Netherlands for Jews wishing to emigrate to Israel, differ in style from others, and are suggestive of Russian constructivist photography of the 1920s and 30s. Young men and women are photographed and often glorified as they learn skills needed in the attempt to build a new and better society – a goal that came closer to realization in Israel than in the USSR.

Another example of Vishniac’s versatility is his work in photomicroscopy, a long-standing interest. After emigrating to New York City he pursued it assiduously to the point of becoming a pioneer and leading authority in the field. Given his academic training in the biological sciences, it is not surprising that virtually all of the 100 or so images in a slide show of this work are of biological subjects. These are luscious photographs taken at a range of magnifications – from the hardly magnified at all (a sea bass) to the very much so (DNA crystals). Some of these photos are of recognizable creatures (jellyfish, insects), while others could well be abstract expressionistic images (various organic compounds and the like). You might be surprised to see that slime mold can be quite interesting close up.

Photo by Roman Vishniac . Source: icp.org
Roman Vishniac, "[Zionist youth learning construction techniques while building a school and foundry, Werkdorp Wieringen, The Netherlands]" 1939.
This exhibition is unusual in a few respects. Most of the images on display are inkjet prints created last year, a consequence of the fact that no earlier prints exist. (Interesting exceptions are images of Eastern European Jews exhibited at YIVO in New York City in 1944 and 1945; the ICP display is of the vintage prints mounted almost seven decades ago.)

Another is that well over half of the prints displayed can be seen on ICP’s website for this exhibition, a policy that noticeably differs from current practices at most museums and other non-profit photo exhibition venues, as well as ICP itself (commercial galleries are a different matter). Furthermore, approximately 700 Vishniac images, most obviously not in this exhibition, can be seen at ICP’s archive website. Presumably this reflects ICP’s laudable effort to rekindle interest in Vishniac’s work by making it more accessible; but your appreciation of Vishniac will be much greater from seeing prints on the wall than viewing them on a monitor.

It would be hard to overstate the importance of this exhibition. The images attract and hold our attention, both because of their artistry and the significance of what we see; the subject matter is among the most important of the twentieth century. Also relevant is that the Roman Vishniac Archive, which contains about 10,000 negatives, is at ICP. Many of these have never been printed, much less systematically explored. Researching the archive is a continuing project at ICP, and the public is invited to contribute whatever information it has about any of the images on display as well as financial support to further the effort.

Roman Vishniac
Roman Vishniac Rediscovered


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Friday, January 18 to
Sunday, May 5, 2013
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