Ro­man Vish­niac Redis­cov­ered

Ro­man Vish­niac was ar­guably one of the best so­cial doc­u­men­tary pho­tog­ra­phers of the 20th cen­tury. Tracy Calder finds out more

Amateur Photographer - - 7days -

On his sev­enth birth­day Ro­man Vish­niac re­ceived two notable gifts: a mi­cro­scope and a cam­era. Like most chil­dren he was cu­ri­ous about the world around him and de­cided to com­bine the de­vices to mag­nify the leg of a cock­roach, record­ing what he dis­cov­ered. Now, more than a cen­tury af­ter this ex­per­i­ment, The Pho­tog­ra­phers’ Gallery and the Jewish Mu­seum Lon­don have been granted ac­cess to his en­tire archive, com­pris­ing 50,000 ob­jects. Par­tic­u­lar high­lights in­clude 10,000 colour sci­ence slides, 10,000 neg­a­tives, thou­sands of pages of cor­re­spon­dence, 10,000 pho­to­graphic prints, and some fas­ci­nat­ing pre-war film footage.

Vish­niac was born in 1897 to wealthy Rus­sian-Jewish par­ents. His mother was the daugh­ter of a di­a­mond dealer and his fa­ther was a man­u­fac­turer of um­brel­las and para­sols. He was born in Pavlovsk, but spent his child­hood 400 miles away in Moscow. As a teenager he bal­anced his en­thu­si­asm for pho­tog­ra­phy with his work as a stu­dent of biology, chem­istry and zo­ol­ogy. The fam­ily had a com­fort­able ex­is­tence un­til 1918 when the fall­out from the Rus­sian Revo­lu­tion prompted them to move to Ber­lin. At first Vish­niac stayed in Moscow to com­plete his stud­ies, but by 1920 he too had de­cided to move west. On his way to Ber­lin he mar­ried his fi­ancé Luta (they were hastily wed by a sta­tion mas­ter in a Lat­vian bor­der town, but made things more of­fi­cial in a reg­is­ter of­fice in Ber­lin).

Hav­ing set­tled in Ber­lin, Vish­niac’s love of pho­tog­ra­phy in­ten­si­fied, partly be­cause he strug­gled to find work in his trained pro­fes­sion as a botanist, and partly be­cause he was en­er­gised by the thriv­ing cos­mopoli­tan cul­ture he en­coun­tered there. He joined some of the city’s cam­era clubs (as well as zo­ol­ogy and biology groups), and could of­ten be found walk­ing the streets with his Rollei­flex. ‘He nav­i­gated his new adopted city of Ber­lin through his cam­era’s lens,’ says cu­ra­tor Maya Benton. To be­gin with, his pic­tures had a modernist style, cap­tur­ing the in­ter­play of light, shade and an­gles, but by the 1930s his at­ten­tion had shifted to sub­jects of a more po­lit­i­cal na­ture.

One im­age, for ex­am­ple, shows his seven-year- old daugh­ter, Mara, pos­ing against a back­drop of ad­ver­tis­ing posters ( left). The shot was taken in 1933, at a time when it was il­le­gal for Jews to take pho­to­graphs. ‘He used his daugh­ter as a prop so that he could doc­u­ment the rad­i­cal changes that were tak­ing place on the streets,’ ex­plains Benton. Sure enough, if you look closely you can see a swastika and the un­mis­tak­able im­age of Hitler on one of the posters. These seem­ingly in­no­cent pic­tures show how ‘nor­mal’ life was grad­u­ally giv­ing way to ex­trem­ism.

In the months that fol­lowed Vish­niac con­tin­ued to doc­u­ment the rise of Nazism in Ger­many, and the sub­se­quent loss of rights for Jews, through his work. His pic­tures show Jewish soup kitchens, schools and hospi­tals as well as im­mi­gra­tion of­fices and Zion­ist agrar­ian train­ing camps. His ef­forts caught the at­ten­tion of the Amer­i­can Jewish Joint Dis­tri­bu­tion Com­mit­tee (JDC), which was es­tab­lished to drum up sup­port for the Jewish pop­u­la­tion. The JDC com­mis­sioned Vish­niac to doc­u­ment the lives of im­pov­er­ished Jewish com­mu­ni­ties in Eastern Europe. This body of work shows the re­al­ity of life be­tween the two World Wars for Jewish fam­i­lies, and is per­haps his most fa­mous col­lec­tion of im­ages. Many of the pic­tures he cre­ated for this com­mis­sion were used to sup­port relief ef­forts and fundrais­ing cam­paigns.

Vish­niac and his fam­ily left Europe in 1940, ar­riv­ing in New York on New Year’s Day 1941. For the next two decades he con­tin­ued to doc­u­ment the im­pact of World War II, in­clud­ing cov­er­age of the ar­rival of Jewish refugees to the USA, and relief ef­forts in Jewish Dis­placed

‘Ro­man Vish­niac Redis­cov­ered’ is run­ning si­mul­ta­ne­ously at The Pho­tog­ra­phers’ Gallery and the Jewish Mu­seum Lon­don un­til 24 Fe­bru­ary 2019. ‘He used his daugh­ter as a prop so that he could doc­u­ment the rad­i­cal changes tak­ing place’

Per­sons camps in Europe. Hav­ing es­tab­lished him­self as a free­lance pho­tog­ra­pher in New York, he re­sumed his in­ter­est in pho­tomi­croscopy – a field that be­came his pri­mary fo­cus for the sec­ond half of his ca­reer.

De­spite Vish­niac’s im­pres­sive out­put, only 250 of his pic­tures were pub­lished in his life­time. ‘Ro­man Vish­niac Redis­cov­ered’ is the first UK ret­ro­spec­tive of his work, and goes some way to re­dress­ing the bal­ance. ‘ This is just the tip of the ice­berg,’ says Benton. ‘I don’t see this as the fi­nal word on Vish­niac. I see this as an open­ing up of the archive invit­ing peo­ple to mine it’.

Above: 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

Above: Jewish school chil­dren, Mukacevo, ca. 1935-38

Above: Eastern Europe, ca. 1935-38

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.