With a career spanning over fifty years, photographer Roman Vishniac (1897-1990) has left an impressive legacy, housed at the International Center of Photography in New York (ICP). While relatively few of his photographs were known until recently, the ICP has digitalised much of his estate in 2013, creating a whole website dedicated to his work. In line with this project, several exhibitions have toured in the US and in Europe since 2013, curated by Maya Benton. Now, Vishniac has finally come to London with large show housed simultaneously at the Photographers’ Gallery and the Jewish Museum London
The exhibition spans across Vishniac’s life as a photographer, starting in the early 1920s, when he arrived in Berlin from Russia via Lithuania. A trained biologist and enthusiastic amateur photographer, Vishniac started to capture street life in Weimar Berlin, which soon coincided with the rise of National Socialism. In the exhibition the most striking images of this time show his young daughter Mara standing in front of National Socialist election posters and anti-Semitic shop signs. Understated and simple, but effective, they bring home the impending horrors of National Socialism – especially for today’s viewers, who know how history unfolded.In fact, the Holocaust most decisively shaped Vishniac’s work for a long time: his best-known photographs, which the exhibition has dedicated much space to, document the lives of impoverished Eastern and East Central European Jews in the late 1930s. Shot as a commission for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), Vishniac travelled to Poland and far-east Czechoslovakia (Carpathian Ruthenia) several times between 1935 and 1938 to produce images for fundraisers that were to support the very people he photographed. With the Holocaust, all that changed. Vishniac’s photographs, most famously published in A Vanished World (1983), have become the last remaining trace of those who were murdered by the National Socialist regime.
With photographs of dire living conditions, interspersed by some more idealised shots of country life and scrapbooks that show how the images were used by the JDC, the exhibition not only gives insight into a vanished world, but also reveals how this world was recorded by Vishniac. We can see how his images were edited, cropped and used in different publications, opening up the image of Vishniac, the documentarian of Eastern European Jews, by linking it to his continuing practice.
Being Jewish himself, Vishniac emigrated to the US with his family via Portugal after short detainment in France. His images of Eastern Europe’s Jewish population were exhibited by YIVO, the Institute for Jewish Research, as early as 1944. At the same time, however, Vishniac began to establish himself as a portrait photographer. He came to depict scenes of American nightlife – and personalities as famous as Albert Einstein, as a small but fine selection of portraits in the gallery shows. Not least, Vishniac also recorded the effects of war on the American population, including some wonderful images of women’s expanded responsibilities while men were at war.
In 1947, Vishniac briefly returned to Europe, where he documented camps that were established for Displaced People, and recorded how those who’d survived the war started a new life. There are also some more personal snaps, like a portrait of his second wife standing in front of the destroyed Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin. Wedged in-between photographs of survivors emigrating for a new life, Vishniac, the documentarian of Jewish Life, seems to have blended these personal stories seamlessly into his documentary work.
Still, photographs of pre- and post-war Jewish life only make a part of Vishniac’s career. In the US, he continued his interest in biology and became a sought-after expert in photomicroscopy. Much more than just scientific documents, these images allow fantastic insights into a world that lies beyond the scope of the naked eye, adding yet another layer to Vishniac’s rich lifework.
In its broad scope, Roman Vishniac Rediscovered is a complex exhibition, which aims to do justice to Vishniac’s multifaceted life and career. It’s a vast exhibition – two floors at the Photographers’ Galley alone, and yet it doesn’t feel overwhelming, as large, single-artist shows often do. Walking though the exhibition, it’s sometimes hard to believe that, in all its variety, this is the work one single man. It’s nothing but impressive – a must-see!
“Roman Vishniac Rediscovered” is currently on display at both The Photographers’ Gallery and The Jewish Museum London until 24 February 2019.