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.