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A Vanished World Rediscovered: Roman Vishniac at the ICP

By Jspace Staff on 3/1/2013 at 1:41 PM

Categories: Features, Art, History

The International Center of Photography in New York’s current exhibition showcases the work of arguably the most important Jewish photographer. "Roman Vishniac Rediscovered," which is expertly curated by Maya Benton, is a must-see for anyone interested in Jewish history, photography, life in the shtetl, Zionism, science, beauty or tragedy. Chances are, you should go.

Roman Vishniac was born in 1897 near Saint Petersburg, into a wealthy assimilated Jewish family and grew up in Moscow. For his seventh birthday, he received a camera and a microscope, which launched his life-long interest in both photography and science. Vishniac soon began to experiment with camera lenses and magnification and to document his results on film. He then studied biology and zoology at university, all the while avidly pursuing amateur photography.

In 1920, Vishniac married Luta Bagg, a Latvian Jew, and the young couple moved to Berlin, where Vishniac’s family had already settled. Berlin at the time was a vibrantly cosmopolitan modern city with a large (often Jewish) immigrant population and a rich cultural life in which Jews were active.

The Vishniacs lived in the Wilmersdorf neighborhood, which had a large population of affluent Russian Jews. Vishniac set up a home photo-processing lab and combined street photography with his interest in scientific research and microscopy. By 1926, the couple had two children: son Wolf and daughter Mara.

Vishniac’s photography career took off in the 1920s when he was hired by German-Jewish communal organizations as a photographer, and he was active in a number of photography clubs in Berlin. He walked around photographing his adopted city, often doing so surreptitiously by standing in doorways in order to capture candid shots. One such example, titled "Recalcitrance," depicts a lady walking a recalcitrant dog through Wilmersdorf.

© Mara Vishniac Kohn. Courtesy International Center of Photography

The photo displays both Vishniac’s ability to unobtrusively capture every day life, and his sense of humor. Another photograph from the late 1920s or possibly early 1930s, shows he had also assimilated the German modernist aesthetic into his photography. Again Vishniac captures unwitting everyday people from an inconspicuous perch, this time at a Berlin railway station.

© Mara Vishniac Kohn. Courtesy International Center of Photography

This shot is notable for Vishniac’s stunning use of shadows, which is apt for a man who himself often photographed from the shadows, at the margins. Of course, all Jews in Germany were marginalized with the rise of Nazism, and Vishniac was no exception. After the Nazis took power in 1933, Jews were expelled from camera clubs—as they were to be excluded from every aspect of German life. In order to continue to take photographs, Vishniac joined a Jewish camera club and continued to walk the streets of Berlin documenting the Nazification of Germany.

Not only were Jews excluded from camera clubs, however, it was also illegal for any Jew to take what might be deemed seditious photographs in pubic. To get around this, Vishniac would position his young daughter, Mara, in front of images he wanted to capture so he seemed to be taking a family portrait or vacation shot. Instead, he was photographing buildings adorned with Nazi symbols, walls covered with Nazi propaganda, or a store that specialized in instruments to measure the purported difference in skull sizes between Aryans and non-Aryans.

In addition to a creative use of his daughter as a prop to shoot Nazi iconography in plain sight, Vishniac, also a zoologist by training, leveraged his relationship with the head zookeeper at the Berlin zoo. This friendship allowed him privileged access, which he used to shoot people visiting bears at the zoo. From his position behind the bears, Vishniac makes it appear that it is the people who are behind bars, not the animals.

© Mara Vishniac Kohn. Courtesy International Center of Photography

The Berlin Zoo was an important institution for Vishniac and its history is an illustration of how the fate of the city’s Jews changed. Located near Vishniac’s neighborhood of Wilmersdorf, the zoo was popular among Berlin’s more affluent, assimilated families—families like the Vishniacs. In fact, four out of 12 of the zoo’s board members and a large proportion of its stockholders were Jewish.

After the Kristallnacht pogrom in November 1938, in which at least 91 Jews were killed and 267 synagogues destroyed, the German government stepped up its process of ‘Aryanization.’ As part of their anti-Jewish legislation, they barred Jews from entering public places like the zoo. By December 1938, Jews were no longer allowed to own stocks and bonds in Germany; Jewish stockholders were forced to ‘sell’ their stocks back to the zoo for a pittance.

This one example of the Berlin Zoo shows how German Jews, who were once major philanthropists to the city’s leading cultural institutions, were disenfranchised, dispossessed and made to disappear. Vishniac’s picture of the visitors to the zoo being behind bars is therefore especially powerful.

Another photo from Vishniac’s days in Berlin shows his ability to frame the mundane in a beautiful way, and his keen modernist sensibility. The image of a Berlin window cleaner is reminiscent of the work of Escher.

© Mara Vishniac Kohn. Courtesy International Center of Photography

As the situation for Jews in Germany worsened, Vishniac documented steps the community took to mitigate their plight. He photographed Jewish soup kitchens, which fed increasingly desperate people; Jewish medical practices, after Jews were forbidden from treating or being treated by non-Jews; and Zionist urban farms, which taught young Jews skills they would need if they were able to immigrate to Palestine.

In the mid-1930s, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) commissioned Vishniac to photograph impoverished Jewish communities in Eastern Europe as part of their fundraising campaign. Vishniac later fabled the mission as self-prescribed odysseys to document Jewish communities before their destruction by Nazism, somewhat misleadingly, but the spectacular results of these journeys form his best-known work, "A Vanished World," published in 1983, which won the National Jewish Book Award.

The images Vishniac captured are simply stunning. They include shots of the squalid, inner-city conditions of Jews in large cities like Warsaw and Krakow, which were used (almost as agitprop) to prompt donors to give to the JDC, which worked to alleviate the Jews’ acute suffering. Today, as we look back with knowledge of what was to befall these souls, their often-despairing faces seem simultaneously prescient and wistful.

© Mara Vishniac Kohn. Courtesy International Center of Photography

This photo of a boy in a basement dwelling on Krochmalna Street, which would become the main street of the Warsaw Ghetto, sets the strong verticals of the kindling and the cabinet against the boy’s large, round eyes. Meanwhile, visible in the corner is a Yiddish newspaper—the kind of publication in which a JDC potential donor might read of the boy’s plight.

Vishniac also shot Jewish neighborhoods that seemed, at the time, to be less precarious, such as Leopoldstadt in Vienna, which was home to a large immigrant Jewish population (primarily from Galicia). In one memorable photo, businesses serving Jews in the area advertise shipping services to immigrant Jews in Austria who might send remittance to family back east.

In a photo taken in Slonim, Belarus, in 1938, a Jewish boy hides behind his Russian friend, with only his left eye visible over his friend’s shoulder. One wonders whether the child successfully hid during the war.

Vishniac’s own family fled Germany. His children were sent to Sweden while his wife attempted to secure immigration visas for the family. Meanwhile, his parents left for the south of France, where Vishniac secured a work assignment and took the following photograph of beach dwellers.

© Mara Vishniac Kohn. Courtesy International Center of Photography

Although Vishniac’s immediately family survived and immigrated to New York in 1940, many Jewish refugees to France only delayed the inevitable. Knowing this, one views Vishniac’s shots of ostensibly carefree sunbathers in a rather different light.

Viewing things differently was Vishniac’s life passion, and what makes him such a powerful photographer. He wanted to see the world through a microscope or from another angle, and he did. Alongside his photos of European Jewish communities, the exhibition includes pictures Vishniac took after immigrating to the US, including images of refugees and portraits of prominent figures like Albert Einstein and Marc Chagall. The exhibition also includes a quite beautiful slideshow of his photos of nature Vishniac took through a microscope.

These images, termed ‘photomicroscopy,’ employ innovative use of polarized light and high magnification, which allowed Vishniac to capture unique images of the microscopic world including extreme close-ups of skin, frogs, mold, ascorbic acid, pancreatic hormone, and cockroaches. The images are quite beautiful—as beautiful as their subjects sound unappealing—and look like they could be the work of Kandinsky.

If you live in New York or will be in town before May 5, 2013, you have the opportunity to see this comprehensive collection of photographs by a 20th century master, who captured a vanished world on the eve of its destruction. "Roman Vishniac Rediscovered" allows a new generation to discover both the tragic world of many of his subjects, and the beauty of his work.

  • Roman Vishniac, [Dancers Emily Frankel and Mark Ryder, Vishniac Portrait Studio, New York], early 19
  • Roman Vishniac, [Guitarist and blues singer Josh White, Cafe Society, Greenwich Village, New York],
  • Roman Vishniac, [Beach dwellers in the afternoon, Nice, France], ca. 1939. © Mara Vishniac Kohn. Co
  • Roman Vishniac, [Window cleaner, Berlin], mid-1930s © Mara Vishniac Kohn. Courtesy International Ce
  • Roman Vishniac, Recalcitrance, Berlin, 1926 © Mara Vishniac Kohn. Courtesy International Center of
  • Roman Vishniac, [Interior of the Anhalter Bahnhof, a railway terminus near Potsdamer Platz, Berlin],
  • Roman Vishniac, People behind bars, Berlin Zoo, early 1930s. © Mara Vishniac Kohn. Courtesy Interna

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