Visu­al Arts

Roman Vish­ni­ac Rediscovered

  • Review
By – December 22, 2015

Maya Ben­ton devot­ed many years to com­pil­ing Roman Vish­ni­ac Redis­cov­ered—a weighty tome that is at once a com­pan­ion to a trav­el­ing exhi­bi­tion of the same name; a col­lec­tion of beau­ti­ful­ly repro­duced pho­tographs; and a schol­ar­ly exam­i­na­tion of the enor­mous and diverse archival col­lec­tion of Roman Vishniac’s work at the Inter­na­tion­al Cen­ter of Pho­tog­ra­phy in New York and elsewhere.

Born in Rus­sia to a pros­per­ous fam­i­ly, Vish­ni­ac received his first cam­era and micro­scope when he was sev­en years old and devel­oped a life­long inter­est in pho­tomi­croscopy and the study of biol­o­gy. The fam­i­ly moved to Berlin after the Russ­ian rev­o­lu­tion, and Vishniac’s best-known pho­tographs are of inter­war Ger­many and Poland. Vish­ni­ac doc­u­ment­ed the rise of Nazism in Ger­many and the final days of vibrant Jew­ish life in shtetls. He also belonged to the Berlin Zion­ist orga­ni­za­tion T’munah (Pic­ture), which offered tech­ni­cal assis­tance and lec­tures on photography.

The Vish­ni­ac fam­i­ly immi­grat­ed to the Unit­ed States in 1940 and set­tled in New York City, where Vish­ni­ac oper­at­ed a por­trait stu­dio and con­tin­ued to nour­ish his inter­est in sci­en­tif­ic research. Sev­er­al exhi­bi­tions of Vishniac’s pho­tographs of pre­war Jew­ish life were mount­ed, and in 1947 his book Pol­ish Jews, a Pic­to­r­i­al Record was pub­lished with an intro­duc­tion by Elie Wiesel. The public’s aware­ness of Vishniac’s work is most­ly from that book and the sub­se­quent vol­umes A Van­ished World (1983) and To Give them Light, the Lega­cy of Roman Vish­ni­ac (pub­lished one year after his death in 1993).

The icon­ic images of poor Jews found in these books were repro­duced in Roman Vish­ni­ac Redis­cov­ered along with hun­dreds of plates of Amer­i­can life: por­traits, street scenes, land­scapes, and inte­ri­or scenes. Vish­ni­ac, the quin­tes­sen­tial flâneur, pro­duced pho­tographs that doc­u­ment spon­ta­neous moments of life — or at least seem to.

The more than twen­ty essays crit­i­cal­ly exam­ine the pho­tographs and qua­si-leg­ends that have gath­ered around them. (Accord­ing to some, Vish­ni­ac him­self pro­mot­ed a num­ber of these leg­ends.) Vishniac’s claim of using a hid­den cam­era is ques­tioned, as is the idea that the sub­jects were unaware of being pho­tographed; some of his pic­tures are known to have been staged.

Vishniac’s work is recon­sid­ered by some of the essay­ists in terms of the his­tor­i­cal record — are the pho­tographs an accu­rate tes­ta­ment, or do they rep­re­sent a par­tic­u­lar agen­da? Lau­ra Wexler won­ders about pho­to­graph­ic truth” while at the same time acknowl­edg­ing the pow­er of images to affect col­lec­tive mem­o­ry: Very few of the sto­ries that Vish­ni­ac told about his pho­tographs are pre­cise­ly true. But then again, nei­ther are they entire­ly false.” His pho­tographs are com­pared to those of pover­ty-strick­en areas of the Dust Bowl of the Depres­sion era pro­duced for the Depart­ment of Agriculture’s Farm Secu­ri­ty Admin­is­tra­tion dur­ing the 1930s and 40s.

Oth­er essays high­light Vishniac’s rela­tion­ship with the Yid­dish press as well as his pho­tographs of pre­war Hol­land and France and post­war dis­placed per­sons camps. An essay on his micro­scop­ic images — the only col­or pho­tos in the book — fur­ther enlarges the pic­ture” of Vishniac’s virtuosity.

Esther Nuss­baum, the head librar­i­an of Ramaz Upper School for 30 years, is now edu­ca­tion and spe­cial projects coor­di­na­tor of the Halachic Organ Donor Soci­ety. A past edi­tor of Jew­ish Book World, she con­tin­ues to review for this and oth­er publications.

Discussion Questions