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

Roman Vishniac Rediscovered @ the Photographers’ Gallery

Prepare to be stunned, upset and amazed at this major exhibition showcasing the incredibly long and varied career of Russian-born, Jewish-American photographer, Roman Vishniac (1897–1990).

The vast archive of Vishniac’s work in New York contains tens of thousands of items and so the exhibition is so copious it is not only spread across two floors at the Photographers’ Gallery, but is also being co-hosted by the Jewish Museum, in north London.

It includes recently discovered vintage prints, rare and ‘lost’ film footage from his pre-war period, contact sheets, personal correspondence, original magazine publications and newly created exhibition prints as well as his acclaimed photomicroscopy.

The quickest way to get an overview of Vishniac’s career and importance is via this interview with exhibition curator, Maya Benton.

I’d never heard of him before but the commentary tells us that Vishniac is best known for having created one of the most widely recognised and reproduced photographic records of Jewish life in Eastern Europe between the two World Wars. Maybe I’ve seen his photos in various history books of the period, but never registered his name.

Russia 1897-1920

Born in Pavlovsk, Russia in 1897 to a Jewish family, Roman Vishniac was raised in Moscow. On his seventh birthday, he was given a camera and a microscope which inspired a lifelong fascination with photography and science. He began to conduct early scientific experiments by attaching the camera to the microscope and, as a teenager, became both an avid amateur photographer and a student of biology, chemistry and zoology.

Berlin 1920-33

In 1920, following the Bolshevik Revolution, Vishniac immigrated to Berlin. Armed with two cameras, a Rolleiflex and a Leica, Vishniac joined some of the city’s many flourishing camera clubs and took to the streets to record everyday life.

He was influenced by the advent of modernist art with its interest in unusual framing, strange geometries, experimental camera angles, and the dramatic use of light and shade. His subject was the people of the streets: streetcar drivers, municipal workers, day labourers, protesting students, children at play, the eeriness of public spaces.

Interior of the Anhalter Bahnhof railway terminus near Potsdamer Platz, Berlin, 1929–early 1930s by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Interior of the Anhalter Bahnhof railway terminus near Potsdamer Platz, Berlin, 1929–early 1930s by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

The Nazis 1933-39

The later 1920s saw the rise of the Nazi Party which finally achieved political power in January 1933. Jews were forbidden to take photographs on the street. German Jews had their businesses boycotted, were banned from many public places and expelled from Aryanised schools. They were also prevented from pursuing careers in law, medicine, teaching, and photography, among the many other indignities and curtailments of civil liberties.

Vishniac used his skills to document the growing signs of oppression, the loss of rights for Jews, the rise of Nazism in Germany, the proliferation of swastika flags and military parades, which were taking over both the streets and daily life.

Vishniac's daughter Mara posing in front of an election poster for Hindenburg and Hitler that reads 'The Marshal and the Corporal: Fight with Us for Peace and Equal Rights', Wilmersdorf, Berlin (1933) © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Vishniac’s daughter Mara posing in front of an election poster for Hindenburg and Hitler that reads ‘The Marshal and the Corporal: Fight with Us for Peace and Equal Rights’, Wilmersdorf, Berlin (1933) © Mara Vishniac Kohn

The Reichsvertretung der Deutschen Juden

Charities had long existed in Germany to channel help to poor Jews in Eastern Europe. From 1933 onwards they also helped Jews in the Fatherland. Zionist and other groups flourished which trained would-be émigrés in the practical agricultural and vocational skills they would need in their new lives in Palestine.

In response to restrictions placed on Jewish artists, the Jüdischer Kulturbund was established and Vishniac was commissioned to record the work of several large Jewish community and social service organisations in Berlin.

His images were used in fundraising campaigns for an American donor audience. This work brought him to the attention of a wide variety of other charitable and philanthropic groups, in Europe and America, which were to provide him with further commissions from Jewish relief and community organisations throughout the 1940s and 50s.

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

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

Jewish life in Eastern Europe 1935-38

In 1935 Vishniac was hired by the European HQ of the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee – the world’s largest Jewish relief organisation – to document impoverished Jewish communities in Eastern Europe. The photos were to be used in lectures, magazines, presentations in the wealthy West to drum up donations.

Over the next four years Vishniac travelled extensively in the region, documenting the impact of anti-Semitic restrictions on populations who were already impoverished, in cities, towns and rural settlements. The technical proficiency and variety and impact of this big body of work ended up turning into something different from what was originally envisaged: it became the last extensive photographic record of an entire way of life that had existed for centuries and was about to be swept away forever.

Here, as in all the aspects of his career, the exhibition doesn’t just show the photos but also has display cases presenting the outputs of these projects: books, magazine articles, slide shows, with texts by Vishniac himself or other writers.

Installation view of Roman Vishniac Rediscovered at the Photographers Gallery

Installation view of Roman Vishniac Rediscovered at the Photographers’ Gallery

Werkdorp Nieuwesluis Agrarian Training Camp 1938

As the plight of German’s Jews worsened many families got their children to join Zionist organisations or sent them to camps in neutral countries. Among these was the Werkdorp Nieuwesluis Agrarian Training Camp in the Netherlands where young Jews could work at practical crafts while waiting for visas to travel to Palestine.

In 1938 Vishniac was sent by the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to document the community. He used the heroic style common to Soviet propaganda photography of the 1920s – fit young men and women working in bright sunshine, shot from low angles to make them look big and powerful – to convey the sense of strong determined Jews building a better future.

In 1941 the SS ordered the inhabitants of the camp who hadn’t managed to flee to be sent to transit camps en route to concentration camps, where most of them died.

Ernst Kaufmann, center, and unidentified Zionist youth, wearing clogs while learning construction techniques in a quarry, Werkdorp Nieuwesluis, Wieringermeer, The Netherlands (1938–39) by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Ernst Kaufmann, center, and unidentified Zionist youth, wearing clogs while learning construction techniques in a quarry, Werkdorp Nieuwesluis, Wieringermeer, The Netherlands (1938–39) by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

France 1939

From April to September 1939 Vishniac worked as a freelance photographer in France, while he and his wife struggled to get a visa to America. Vishniac was commissioned by the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to photograph a vocational training school for Jewish refugees near Marseille.

It so happened that Visniac’s own parents had relocated to Nice in 1937, where he went to visit them and managed to take a series of light-hearted photos of Riviera beach life. So many angles, so many lights to his career.

Arrest and escape

In late 1939 Vishniac was arrested by the French authorities and placed in the Camp du Ruchard. His wife lobbied to secure his release and the pair, and their children, then took ship from Lisbon to New York, arriving on New Year’s Eve 1940.

Settling into his new American home opened up a range of possibilities. On the one hand Vishniac was still deeply attached to the Jewish community in Europe. He lobbied on their behalf and the exhibition includes a letter he wrote in 1942 directly to President Roosevelt, including five photographs, asking him to intervene in Europe to save the Jews.

Professionally, he was able to recycle the immense archive of photos from Eastern Europe in a number of exhibitions designed to highlight their plight, including a 1944 show Pictures of Jewish Life in Prewar Poland which has a slot to itself here, featuring images from Warsaw, Lublin and Wilno, presented on their original display boards.

In 1945 he was given a second exhibition, Jewish Life in the Carpathians. Both were organised by the Yiddish Scientific Institute of Wilno which had also fled to New York.

In the same spirit Vishniac’s work was included in a 1947 book titled The Vanished World edited by Raphael Abramovitch.

It was these exhibitions, books, magazine articles and reviews which established Vishniac’s lasting reputation as the chronicler of the now-lost world of European Jewry.

Inside the Jewish quarter, Bratislava (c. 1935–38) by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Inside the Jewish quarter, Bratislava (c. 1935–38) by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Immigrants, refugees and emigre life

But many had managed to flee and now found themselves in an alien land. The exhibition devotes a section to ‘immigrants, refugees, and New York Jewish community life 1941 to 47’.

Through the network of philanthropical agencies he had developed in Europe, Vishniac got work with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and the National Refugee Society who paid for him to photograph new shiploads of refugees, and document their efforts to start a new life, and the inspiring work of Jewish social services and community groups.

Surprisingly, maybe, this section features many shots of children looking remarkably fit and healthy and well-fed. After the abject poverty of Eastern Europe, and then the miserable persecution of the Nazis, Visniac, along with many immigrants, wanted to accentuate the positive and make images of the new life in America full of youth, energy and optimism.

America at war 1941-44

Alongside these is a section where Vishniac applied the street photography skills he had honed in Berlin to New York, in a strikingly varied series of shots which include sequences shot in New York’s Chinese community, shoppers queueing for rationed food, women’s entry into the military, off duty soldiers, and so on.

Customers waiting in line at a butcher's counter during wartime rationing, Washington Market, New York, 1941-44 by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Customers waiting in line at a butcher’s counter during wartime rationing, Washington Market, New York, 1941-44 by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

New York life

In New York, Vishniac established himself as a freelance photographer and built a successful portrait studio on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. He used his connections with the Jewish diaspora to secure portraits of eminent Jewish émigrés including Albert Einstein, Marc Chagall and Yiddish theatre star Molly Picon. These VIP shots helped to attract other dancers, actors, musicians and artists to his studio and provide a steady supply of work.

Albert Einstein by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Albert Einstein by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Alongside the studio work, he began a new series of shots made on location in New York’s countless nightclubs, featuring jazz musicians, dancers, singers and performers in a variety of settings, playing or relaxing backstage. Fascinating and evocative.

Back to Europe

In 1947 Vishniac was again commissioned by the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, this time to return to Europe and document refugees and relief efforts in Jewish Displaced Persons camps, recording a wide array of relief activities such as the distribution of food and clothing, education and so on

He also got the opportunity to return to Berlin, city of his young manhood, now reduced to rubble. The same locations which hummed with life in his Weimar photos are now rubble-strewn ruins and vacancies. Pitiful remnants.

Photomicroscopy

As if this large body of invaluable documentary and street photography wasn’t enough, Vishniac never lost interest in his first love, scientific photography. And once he was financially secure in America he was able to pick it up with renewed enthusiasm, especially in photography of the very small, or ‘photomicroscopy’.

This field became the primary focus of his work during the last 45 years of his life, till his death in 1990. By the mid-1950s, he was regarded as a pioneer in the field, developing increasingly sophisticated techniques for photographing and filming microscopic life forms.

Classic examples of Vishniac's photomicrography (all magnifications as noted on originals): A. Fresh, horizontal, thick-section of skin from Roman Vishniac's thumb," colorization", x40, 1950s-1962. Mara Vishniac Kohn recalls her father slicing this specimen from his thumb. (Radzyner 2106B) B. Central core plant tissue, polarized light and Rheinberg illumination, x10, 1950s-1962. C. Oedogonium (Green Algae), interference contrast, x100, 1950s-1970s. D. Plant mitosis, transillumination, x100, early 1950s-1970s © Mara Vishniac Kohn, Courtesy International Center of Photography.

Examples of Vishniac’s photomicrography: A. Fresh, horizontal, thick-section of skin from Roman Vishniac’s thumb, ‘colorization’, x40 (1950s-1962). B. Central core plant tissue, polarized light and Rheinberg illumination, x10 (1950s-1962) C. Oedogonium (Green Algae), interference contrast, x100 (1950s-1970s) D. Plant mitosis, transillumination, x100 (early 1950s-1970s) © Mara Vishniac Kohn, Courtesy International Center of Photography.

In 1961 Vishniac was appointed Professor of Biology Education at Yale University, and his groundbreaking images and scientific research were published in hundreds of magazines and books.

The exhibition includes a darkened room where you can watch a slide show of 90 blown-up transparencies from the 1950s to the 1970s, of Visniac’s full colour plates of scientific subjects – ranging from the cells of various organs in the body, to close-ups of fungal spores or of insect eyes. Nearby is a case displaying the actual microscope and lenses he used in this work.

Installation view of Roman Vishniac Rediscovered at the Photographers Gallery

Microscope and lenses used by Roman Vishniac in his photomicroscopy work

What an amazing life! What a breath-taking achievement! This is a wonderful exhibition.


Related links

Reviews of other Photographers’ Gallery exhibitions

Reviews of anti-Semitism and Holocaust literature

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