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

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - COVER STORY -

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.