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