Roman Vishniac Rediscovered @ The Jewish Museum

The current exhibition, Roman Vishniac Rediscovered, is taking place at two London venues: half at the Photographers’ Gallery, just off Oxford Street, half at the Jewish Museum, a few minutes walk from Camden tube. I’ve already reviewed the half of the exhibition on display at the Photographers’ Gallery.

When he died in New York in 1990, Vishniac left his negatives, prints, correspondence and so on to the International Centre of Photography. The Vishniac Archive now houses more than 50,000 objects, including vintage prints, moving footage, contact sheets, personal correspondence, audio recordings, and a staggering 10,000 negatives. The process of digitising and reviewing them only began in 2012.

Sara, sitting in bed in a basement dwelling, with stencilled flowers above her head, Warsaw (c.1935-37) © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Sara, sitting in bed in a basement dwelling, with stencilled flowers above her head, Warsaw (c.1935-37) © Mara Vishniac Kohn

The result of all this is that:

  1. sorting through the archive is an ongoing scholarly quest, which has only just begun and has already thrown up surprises and discoveries
  2. already it has generated so much material that the first major exhibition of Roman Vishniac’s work, originally held in New York, wouldn’t fit into just the Photographers’ Gallery in London. And so it has been shared between the Photographers’ Gallery and here, at the Jewish Museum, where it occupies the entire top floor of the building.
Installation view of Roman Vishniac Rediscovered at the Jewish Museum, London

Installation view of Roman Vishniac Rediscovered at the Jewish Museum, London

The lady on the door explained how the show had been divided between the two spaces: the Photographers’ Gallery show focuses more on Visniac’s technique, approach and achievements as a photographer; whereas the Jewish Museum selection, as you might expect, embeds him more into the Jewish tradition, bringing out his Jewish subject matter, and the themes of contemporary Jewry which he photographed and recorded.

An example is the room dedicated to the 1947 book, The Vanished World. This was issued by the Yiddish magazine and publisher, the Forward Foundation, based in New York, and brought together images of Jewish communities in Eastern Europe by a number of photographers, including Alter Kacyzne, Menachem Kipnis, Vishniac and others.

The Vanished World contained over 550 densely packed images (150 by Vishniac) conveying the richness of those communities even though, by the time the book was published, they had been almost entirely destroyed. In the room devoted to The Vanished World are displayed not only a copy of this rare volume, but a selection of individual prints, as well as correspondence and notes surrounding its creation.

Installation view of Roman Vishniac Rediscovered at the Jewish Museum showing the room devoted to The Vanished World

Installation view of Roman Vishniac Rediscovered at the Jewish Museum showing the room devoted to The Vanished World

As at the PG, the JM show places a production like this in the broader context of Vishniac’s astonishing life and prolific output, all displayed in chronological order. I counted 15 distinct areas or themes, including:

  • 1920s-30s street photography in Berlin
  • 1930-37 the Nazi rise to power
  • German Jewish charitable organisations
  • Jewish life in eastern Europe 1935-38
  • agrarian camps for Jews in Holland c.1938
  • travel, refuge and internment in France 1938
  • Jewish life in the Carpathians – an exhibition held in New York 1945
  • New York studio portraits
  • New York night clubs
  • the face of America at war
  • Berlin in ruins 1947
  • displaced persons camps in Germany 1947
  • scientific microscopy 1950s – 1970s

Vishniac’s oeuvre as a whole amounts to an awesome x-ray of the tormented middle years of the twentieth century.

The blurb here and at the Photographers’ Gallery say that Vishniac is best known for the photojournalism he did among the severely impoverished Jewish communities of Eastern Europe in the later 1930s, and this photo of happy kids is meant to be his most famous image.

Jewish school children, Mukacevo (1935–38) by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Jewish school children, Mukacevo (1935–38) by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Thus both exhibitions claim to be expanding – rediscovering – the full range of Visniac’s work, and setting the Eastern Europe stuff in the much broader context of his oeuvre. But since I’d never heard of Vishniac before, and wasn’t particularly aware that he is, apparently, the single biggest influence on ‘contemporary notions of Jewish life in Eastern Europe’, the whole thing – his entire oeuvre – came as an equal revelation to me.

Thus I was as entranced by his images of day-to-day life in the Berlin of the 1920s and early 1930s as by any of the specifically Jewish subject matter.

People behind bars, Berlin Zoo, ca. 1930-1935 © Mara Vishniac Kohn

People behind bars, Berlin Zoo, ca. 1930-1935 © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Certainly there seemed to be more about the photos he took in Eastern Europe in the late 1930s, more documentation and explanation of how they were used by the Jewish charities who commissioned Vishniac to take them, than there had been at the Photographers’ Gallery. But it was by no means all synagogues and rabbis; in fact, in a way, I was surprised at the relative scarcity of overtly religious photos. What came over for me, from this selection, was just the general poverty. The figures in the photos may or may not have been Jewish but, God, the snow and the pelting rain and the dirty streets and the shabby buildings and the filthy rooms. I was struck, horrified, oppressed by the sense of universal poverty, of millions of central and east Europeans living in poverty and want. And that was before the strutting Overmen goosemarched in with their plans for a New Europe which ended in typhoid camps and piles of half-burned bodies. What horror. What horror upon horror.

Isaac Street, Kazimierz, Cracow (1935-7) by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Isaac Street, Kazimierz, Cracow (1935-7) by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

It is an immense relief when the exhibition moves on to Vishniac’s arrival in New York, home of skyscrapers, comic books, movie stars, nightclubs, jazz, and about to see the birth of Abstract Expressionism. It is like escaping from a nightmare and presumably that’s how it felt to so many of the European refugees. Now they could just get on with living their lives. There’s no doubting that America really was the Home of the Free for the vital years at the centre of the Dark Century.

I always remember the way Kurt Weill – remembered for his collaborations with the Marxist playwright Bertolt Brecht, most famously for the Threepenny Opera – as soon as he arrived as a refugee in new York, immediately dropped the politics and the poverty and the proletariat of his entire previous career, and switched to trying to write shiny, optimistic musicals to match Rodgers and Hammerstein and the rest. I can see how it was just not the need to make money in a completely different milieu. It was also the escape from what must have seemed like an endless nightmare. Similarly, W.H. Auden dropped his left-wing politics and completely rethought his position on the basis of a newfound existentialist type of Christian faith.

Well, similarly, Vishniac’s photos of New York are portraits of the famous, snaps of exciting, open and free nightclubs and jazz acts, and (something both exhibitions comment on) a focus on healthy young children. Possibly because that’s what the American market called for. But also as a release from the bottomless poverty and misery he had seen in central and eastern Europe. Civilisation, not barbarism.

Boys exercising in the gymnasium of the Jewish Community House of Bensonhurst, Brooklyn (1949) by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Boys exercising in the gymnasium of the Jewish Community House of Bensonhurst, Brooklyn (1949) by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

The exhibition ends with a small dark room in which you can sit on a bench and watch no fewer than 90 slides of the colour microphotographs Vishniac took from the 1950s onwards, and which made him a much sought-after specialist.

He produced these stunning images for corporate clients like IBM, Westinghouse, and Pfizer as well as for magazines like Life, OMNI, and Popular Photography.

Again, the visual range is extraordinary, from wonderful photos of coloured jellyfish apparently suspended in black space, to close-ups of the eyes and bodies of various insects, and to unnerving microphotos of the structure of bodily substances like hormones, skin and hair, magnified so much that they look like modernist abstract paintings.

Central core root tissue by Roman Vishniac

Central core root tissue by Roman Vishniac

I sat there for five minutes, watching them all. Something about the rather lurid colour palette transported me back to the kind of basic science books I must have read as a kid at school or in the library in the late 1960s and early 70s.

As I mentioned in my Photographers’ Gallery review, the quickest way to get an overview of Vishniac’s career and importance is via this interview with exhibition curator, Maya Benton.

He was a wonderful photographer, and the necessity of visiting the two locations – the Photographers’ Gallery and the Jewish Museum – gives a kind of stereoscopic, three-dimensional effect, viewing the same story but from different angles, the same basic chronology illustrated with different examples of his work, bringing it wonderfully, sometimes harrowingly, to life.


Related links

Reviews of anti-Semitism and Holocaust literature

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