In the right place, with the right camera
Roman Vishniac is famous for recording Jewish life on the brink of the Holocaust. As a landmark exhibition comes to London, novelist says it’s time to embrace him – not just as a chronicler, but as a genius of photography, too
There is a particular curse visited on photographers – akin to the one-bookwonder tag that afflicts novelists, or the one-hitwonder sneer that sinks rock musicians’ reputations – and that is when you become famous for one photograph only. Think of Alberto Korda, who famously photographed Che Guevara in 1960 (the most reproduced photograph in the world) or the super-talented Robert Doisneau’s Kiss by the Town Hall – second only to Che on bedsit walls – or Yousuf Karsh’s brooding chiaroscuro portrait of Winston Churchill. The fame of that one image seems to consign the rest of the oeuvre to the shadows.
Roman Vishniac (born in 1897) suffers from the same syndrome – but this time it’s for a precise body of work rather than a single photograph. Vishniac is almost exclusively known for a series of photographs that he took of the Jewish shtetls in Eastern Europe before the onset of the Second World War and the Holocaust – wonderful, haunting portraits that bear witness to a world that was soon due to be utterly riven and destroyed. Shtetl means “town” in Yiddish, and over the course of four years (1934-38) Vishniac made dozens of journeys to these small communities – in Poland, Hungary, Carpathia and Ruthenia, to record the life of these Eastern European Jews. Some photographs were published anonymously pre-war and, post-war, two monographs appeared in 1947, but it wasn’t until his book A Vanished World (1983) that Vishniac’s shtetl photographs achieved lasting iconic status.
Vishniac was born near St Petersburg at the end of the
19th century to a well-off family of bourgeois Russian Jews. He studied zoology at the Shanyavsky Institute in Moscow until the Russian Revolution in 1917 tore his secure society apart. The family emigrated to Berlin (so many Russians moved there it was known as Berlingrad) – and Vishniac joined them in 1920, aged 23, though not before he had married his Latvian fiancée and secured a Latvian passport, a factor that would be useful to him in the coming years, giving him some rights to which Jews with German passports were no longer entitled.
Vishniac was an enthusiastic and sophisticated amateur photographer – he bought the first Leica and Rolleiflex cameras as they appeared – and his street photographs in the Twenties and Thirties of Berlin life are remarkable. Some of his images – exploiting the technology of these new small cameras – are as clever and beguiling as those of CartierBresson and Lartigue.
In 1934, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) commissioned him to travel east to record the daily life of the Eastern European Jewish populace. The images would be used to raise funds and awareness as the ascent of the Nazi party was causing international tremors. Vishniac’s journeys eastwards over the next four years established his great archive of photographs of these soon-to-disappear communities.
Vishniac’s trans-European itinerary echoes that of another bourgeois Russian, also fleeing the Revolution – the novelist Vladimir Nabokov. Like Nabokov, Vishniac found his comfortable Berlin exile terminated when
Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in 1933. Like the Nabokov family, the Vishniacs fled to
France, to Paris and Nice, and then, after the fall of France, to