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Roman Vishniac: Remembering the Shtetl, Forgetting the Avant-garde


Mikołaj Gliński
Modernist composition: Boy with kindling in a basement dwelling, Krochmalna Street, Warsaw], ca. 1935–1938. ©Mara Vishniac Kohn, courtesy International Center of Photography.
Modernist composition vs. traditional Jewish life: Boy with kindling in a basement dwelling, Krochmalna Street, Warsaw], ca. 1935–1938. ©Mara Vishniac Kohn, courtesy International Center of Photography.

Roman Vishniac has long been considered the author of the most iconic images of pre-WW2 Jewish life in Eastern Europe. A new monographic exhibition opening in Warsaw shows him as a much more versatile and accomplished author – and sheds new light on the photos he’s most famous for.

For decades, Roman Vishniac was perceived through his iconic images of Jewish people from Eastern Europe – mostly religiously observant men and boys studying the Tora, living in poverty and destitution on the eve of the Holocaust. Their portraits, reproduced and republished thousand of times – most famously and effectively in the 1983 book The Vanished World: Jewish Cities, Jewish People, became the faces and indeed even icons standing for the whole lost civilization of Eastern European Jews.

Now with the exhibition Roman Vishniac: Photography, 1920-1975 shown at Polin Museum in Warsaw, we can see how these images, themselves far from complete and rather one-sided, became iconic representations of pre-war Jewish life and trace Vishniac's role in perpetuating this image. 

The show curated by Maya Benton brings together Vishniac’s whole artistic oeuvre for the first time and spans over 60 years of his career. By drawing attention to much lesser-known sides of his work and showing Vishniac as a modernist and a follower of the European Avant-garde but also a pioneer of American experimental photomicroscopy, the exhibition makes the argument that he was one of the great photographers of the 20th century.

Not only the Shtetl

Jewish schoolchildren, Mukacevo, ca. 1935–1938. ©Mara Vishniac Kohn, courtesy International Center of Photography.
Jewish schoolchildren, Mukacevo, ca. 1935–1938. ©Mara Vishniac Kohn, courtesy International Center of Photography.

Vishniac was born in Pavlovsk, near Saint Petersburg in 1897 but moved to Berlin with his family after the Bolshevic Revolution. He had always claimed that the project to create a photographic record of East European Jewry was a self-imposed assignment – as he felt the world he was photographing was fated for extermination. The exhibition in Warsaw proves that this project was actually undertaken on commission from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (AJDC) – the world’s largest Jewish relief organization – which hired Vishniac in 1935 to document impoverished Jewish communities in Eastern Europe. 

As the exhibition's curator, Maya Benton, explains, these pictures made by Vishniac during dozens of trips to Poland, Romania and Russia in 1935-1938, would later be used in slide lectures, brochures, appeals and annual reports throughout America and Western Europe. As such, they were a part and tool of the fund-raising effort – showing the privation of Eastern European Jews and their immersion in traditional Jewish life was intended to raise empathy amongst (and money from) possible donors.

This resulted in a specific choice of aesthetics and subjects for his photos. One example presented at the exhibition in Warsaw are two photographs exhibited one next to each other. One shows two old religious Jews sitting against a dilapidated wooden shtetl wall, the other portrays two young Jewish porters in Warsaw, strong and athletically built they look at the photographer boldly smoking cigarettes; they may be poor but they are already part of a different, modern urban civilization. Obviously, only the first kind of picture would fit the frame adopted by the committee.

In fact, many of those photographs were never published during Vishniac's lifetime. Taken at exactly the same time, they show quite a different face of Jewishness in Eastern Europe, and as images of urban, middle-class Jews they offer a much wider perspective.

Although Vishniac was not a shtetl or a ghetto photographer, his images soon began to be seen in the context of the Holocaust. Already during the war, at a 1944 exhibition at YIVO in New York, they began to be seen as a “document of a lost epoch”, and soon they were to become the most widely recognized visual memento of the vanished world.

From Photos of Shtetls to Photomicroscopy

Drawer of freshly farmed eggs, Gut Winkel, a training farm for German--‐Jewish youth hoping to emigrate to Palestine, Spreenhagen in der Mark, Brandenburg, Germany], ca. 1938. ©Mara Vishniac Kohn, courtesy International Center of Photography.
Traces of the Avangarde in Vishniac: Drawer of freshly farmed eggs, Gut Winkel, a training farm for German‐Jewish youths hoping to emigrate to Palestine, Spreenhagen in der Mark, Brandenburg, Germany, ca. 1938. ©Mara Vishniac Kohn, courtesy International Center of Photography.

The exhibition makes also interesting links between Vishniac’s artistic background as an amateur photographer and his future famous work. Many of his photographs from 1920s and 1930s Berlin show a Modernist and Avant-gardist sensibility with bold perspectives and geometric compositions.

Benton claims that Vishniac took this self-aware eye to Eastern Europe – we just don’t see it on the most famous and widely reproduced pictures. It seems that Vishniac alternated between different aesthetics depending on what he photographed and what his aim was. Some of his pictures which come from around the same time – like the ones taken in Werkdorp Nieuwesluis Agrarian Training Camp in Wieringermeer (The Netherlands) in 1938 – showcase an almost Constructivist, Rodchenkoesque aesthetics, representing men as strong and brave pioneers. This is a strong contrast to the famous pictures of Jews made at around the same time in Eastern Europe.

Zionist youth building a school and foundry while learning construction techniques, Werkdorp Nieuwesluis, Wieringermeer, The Netherlands], 1939. ©Mara Vishniac Kohn, courtesy International Center of Photography
Constructivist Vishniac: Zionist youth building a school and foundry while learning construction techniques, Werkdorp Nieuwesluis, Wieringermeer, The Netherlands, 1939. ©Mara Vishniac Kohn, courtesy International Center of Photography

In America, where he settled in 1940, Vishniac set up a portrait studio. Trying to make ends meet, he photographed famous celebrities and nightclubs but also took photos of immigrants and refugees, as well as documenting Jewish community life (bar-mitzvas, and other private occasions).

Perhaps the most surprising facet of Vishniac’s photographic work is offered by the ample body of his experimental scientific photomicroscopy. In America, Vishniac, who was interested in biology from his earliest years (he studied biology and zoology in Moscow), eventually established himself as a specialist in the field of photomicroscopy, and was regularly commissioned by government agencies, scientists, and institutions to document and research microorganisms and biological phenomena.

In Warsaw, these pioneering images representing magnified insects, blood cells, human skin, etc, are shown in a darkened room which evokes the atmosphere of a photographic lab.

[Skin from Roman Vishniac's thumb, magnified 280 times], 1950s–70s. ©Mara Vishniac Kohn, courtesy International Center of Photography.
Skin from Roman Vishniac's thumb, magnified 280 times, 1950s–70s. ©Mara Vishniac Kohn, courtesy International Center of Photography.

Back in Warsaw

Sara, sitting In bed In a basement dwelling, with stenciled flowers above her head, Warsaw, ca. 1935–37. ©Mara Vishniac Kohn, courtesy International Center of Photography
Sara, sitting In bed in a basement dwelling, with stenciled flowers above her head, Warsaw, ca. 1935–37. ©Mara Vishniac Kohn, courtesy International Center of Photography

Bringing the exhibition – which had earlier been shown in New York, Paris and Amsterdam – to Warsaw may seem like home-coming in some respects. In fact, some of Vishniac’s most famous pictures were taken in the immediate vicinity of the museum, in what was once the heart of Jewish Warsaw: in the streets Pawia, Miła, Dzika.

For Maya Benton, showing the exhibition in Warsaw is also a way to reach out to the local population and get to know their stories. Benton hopes that the visitors at Polin will help to identify some of the locations and maybe people in the pictures before it is too late. With the whole archive of Vishniac now digitized and available online, there’s now a new, and probably the last, opportunity to do this.

It is not a definitive Vishniac. We’re opening up the archive to students, scholars and curators. |
Benton explains 

Benton hopes some of this work could be done here in Poland, with people coming to the exhibition or sitting with their grandparents by the computer looking at pictures and bringing their stories. But as she stresses:

We’re running out of time.

The exhibition Roman Vishniac: Photography, 1920-1975 is organized by the International Center of Photography, New York. Curated by Maya Benton.

The exhibition is open at the Polin Museum from May 8 until August 31, 2015

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Category: 
Photography & Visual Arts