Photographer, chronicler of Jewish life in the shadow of Holocaust. 1897 - 1990
Photographer, chronicler of Jewish life in the shadow of Holocaust. Born 19 September 1897 in Pavlovsk near St. Petersburg, died 22 January 1990 in New York
Vishniac, son of a wealthy factory-owner, studied medicine and biology; however, when the Jewish resettlements of the World War One started, he began to cooperate with a charity organization that was helping the displaced persons, and, thanks to this connection, he and his family moved to Berlin in 1920. As he later recalled, due to his experience of the resettlements in Russia, these very first manifestations of anti-Semitism, he became much more sensitive to the issues of Jewish persecutions and very quickly came to be aware of Hitler’s intentions.
Berlin. First Photographs
In Berlin, Vishniac started being involved with “serious” photography. He was taking pictures before that – he received his first camera for his seventh birthday – however, at the time he was predominantly interested in photographing biological magnifications, seen through a microscope. In Berlin, on the other hand, he became involved in documentary, street and reportage photography. One of Vishniac’s friends worked at the Berlin Zoo – it is thanks to this fact that a photo series from zoological garden came into being. Vishniac was taking pictures of crowds of passers-by, street scenes, as well as portraits of the Berliners. In the 1920s the German capital was the heart of the modern world and a metropolis throbbing with life – it was there that the avant-garde artists would live and work, where the expressionist film was born, and where the modernist architecture was being built. Vishniac’s photographs reflect that atmosphere: they are full of high contrast, dynamic views and awry framing. Just like any amateur of street photography, Vishniac had his Leica, a small and quick camera, perfect for “capturing” the brief scenes and events.
Before the Shoah
Evertyhing begins to change in 1933 – after Hitler came to power. Vishniac abandons expressionist photography and turns towards documenting the transitions that are taking place in the city: he takes photographs of anti-Semitic posters, swastikas, of the more and more numerous soldiers that can be seen in the streets. The Jews were already unable to freely take photographs (not to mention engaging in professional photography) – hence Vishniac would go everywhere with his daughter in order to pretend that he was photographing her. At that time the photographer also began to collaborate with various organizations that were helping Jews, whose situation was becoming worse all the time – he was documenting their initiatives, which included providing food, medical aid, education. In result of this activity he was discovered by the members of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (AJDC), a charity organization, which works to this day. In 1935 the organization commissioned Vishniac to document the life of Jews living in Eastern Europe. For this project the photographer visited, among others, the present-day Romania, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Ukraine, but nevertheless he spent the majority of that time in Poland. He photographed Jews from Warsaw, Lublin, Cracow, Białystok, and the small, peripheral towns. The images portrayed everyday life of Jewish villages and quarters, chidren’s games, work environment, prayers, but also the living conditions and the increasingly hostile atmosphere (numerous anti-Semitic demonstrations, boycotts of Jewish shops, etc.) These photographs are considered to be the last consistent series on the Jewish nation and culture that was taken before Shoah. The series from Eastern Europe is very often compared to the now classic collection of photos, commissioned by the Farm Security Administration (FSA – founded in 1935). One of the organization’s fields of action was documentation of the American countryside, residents of which appeared to be those most affected by the Great Depression. Dorothea Lange, Gordon Parks, Arthur Rothstein, Jack Delano, Walker Evans would tour the country, taking pictures of the poverty and its victims. The anthology of photographs, created in 1935-43, is nowadays considered to be a classic example of documentary photography and a poignant record of social effects of the Great Depression. Roman Vishniac’s pictures, similarly to those taken by Dorothea Lange or Walker Evans, although commissioned, are full of humanitarian empathy and attempt to demonstrate not just the imagery, but also the human fate.
Turn of the 1930s. Wieringermeer and Zbąszyń
Before the outbreak of the War, Vishniac documents a Zionist camp in Wieringermeer, Netherlands, where the Jewish youth was taught how to farm in order to prepare for their relocation to Palestine, and camps for Jews resettled from various parts of Europe. One of them was a camp for Jews banished from Germany in Zbąszyń (in October 1938 the Germans expelled approx. 17 000 Jews to Poland; 7 000 found refuge in this camp); Vishniac also carried out series about camps in the south of France, in Nice and Marseille. These cycles, created at the end of 1930s, differ in a lot of ways. Photos from Zbąszyń constitute a horrifying image of people who were living in confinement and unsure of their future; the pictures from French camps, on the other hand, convey unexpected memories of the summer dog-days (beaches, promenade strolls, open air concerts). In the series devoted to the farming training in Netherlands Vishniac returned to the beginnings of his professional career – to the dynamic takes he would create in Berlin. The portraits from Wieringermeer may resemble social realist images of the work leaders – here we can see the engaged, cheerful youth, enthusiastically working in the fields. This farming schooling camp in Netherlands was the first joyful event that Vishniac photographed in years. This is perhaps why he had the possibility to take better care of the formal solutions: scaffoldings of farm buildings erected by the adolescents had inspired the photographer to create pictures in the spirit of geometrical compositions, similar to those made by Alexander Rodchenko in the past.
The United States
On the New Year’s Day in 1941 Roman Vishniac, together with his wife and children, arrived to New York (they escaped from a ship to Lisbon). Soon after that the photographer opened his portrait studio, and simultaneously continued to be involved with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee: Vishniac was travelling across the U.S. to present his photographs from the interwar period. In 1947 the photographer’s first monographic album entitled Polish Jews: A Pictorial Record was released: in the following years Vishniac’s works were published a number of times. For instance, they were used as illustrations to Isaac Bashevis Singer’s autobiography A Day of Pleasure: Stories of a Boy Growing Up in Warsaw; they also appeared in the famous exhibition The Family of Man, a substantial overview of documentary photography, organized by Edward Steichen in 1955 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In 1983 the International Center of Photography published an extensive anthology of the photographs taken by Vishniac in the 1930s in Europe.
In the 1970s Roman Vishniac, possibly owing to his son-microbiologist, returned to photographing objects under a microscope. The photographer died in 1990. In 2007, thanks to his daughter Mara Vishniac Kohn, who inherited his property and works, the Roman Vishniac Archive was founded at the International Center of Photography in New York, in cooperation with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. In 2012 digitalization of all of the preserved works of the Jewish photographer was completed – today it lends itself for the use of historians, researchers of culture, amateurs of both history and photography.
From January to May 2013, the International Center of Photography held an exhibition of Vishniac’s works – one of the most interesting and richest collections documenting the life of Jews in the 1930s Eastern Europe.
Author: Anna Cymer, June 2013
Translated by Anna Micińska