Recognised primarily for his photographic records of Jewish life in Eastern Europe between the two World Wars, Russian-born American photographer Roman Vishniac (1897 – 1990) was in fact an extraordinary versatile and innovative photographer. His first UK retrospective, Roman Vishniac Rediscovered, is jointly presented by the Photographers’ Gallery and the Jewish Museum London. Both venues showcase many of his most iconic works alongside recently discovered and lesser known chapters of his photographic career, spanning from the 1920s to the 1970s.
Experimenting with the camera and microscope from a very young age during his childhood in Moscow, he had a lifelong fascination with photography and science. Following the Russian Revolution, he emigrated to Berlin in 1920. Inspired by the rich cultural experimentation of Berlin in the Weimar Republic, Vishniac begun documenting his surroundings with the camera. His early body of work strongly mirrors the influence of European Modernism on his photographic compositions, for example Window washer balancing on a ladder, Berlin (mid-1930s) features sharp angles, extreme perspectives and a dramatic use of light and shade.
Vishniac’s photographic career ran parallel with the enormous political shifts hitting Germany in the 1930s. The photographs he took in the years before the outbreak of the Second World War are an unsettling record of the growing oppression towards the Jewish population in the wake of the rise of Nazism in Germany. They visually trace the speed in which Berlin switched from a seemingly open and intellectual society to one shaped by militarism and fascism. Vishniac recorded this grim new reality through images depicting Jewish soup-kitchens, schools and hospitals, immigration offices and Zionist agrarian training camps. One photograph from 1933 on display at the Photographers’ Gallery shows his seven-year-old daughter Mara in the streets of Berlin. When looking more closely at the details in the background we can see that she is standing in front of a Nazi propaganda poster.
Over the next few years social and political documentation became the main focus of his work. In 1935 the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) commissioned Vishniac to record impoverished Jewish communities across Eastern Europe. The images were used for fundraising campaigns in the US to foster support relief efforts. When the war broke out just a few years later, depictions of impoverished Jewish children such as Sara, sitting in bed in a basement dwelling, with stencilled flowers above her head, Warsaw (1935 – 1937) gained an increased urgency. Today, Vishniac’s images of Eastern Europe’s Jewish life are the most comprehensive existing photographic record of a vanished world. For example, in the Jewish Museum we can see rare photographs and even rarer moving image footage of rural life in remote Carpathian Jewish villages.
Roman Vishniac left Europe in 1940. He opened a successful portrait studio in New York where he photographed famous Jewish sitters from the émigré community, such as Albert Einstein or Marc Chagall. Throughout the 1940s and 50s Vishniac’s subject matter mainly focused on the arrival of Jewish refugees and Holocaust survivors in the US. However, he also photographed the American Chinese immigrant community in New York’s Chinatown and also took a series of photographs in nightclub and burlesque venues such in the Cafe Society in Greenwich village, which was one of the first racially-integrated night-clubs in New York. In 1947 Vishniac returned to Europe to document refugee and relief efforts in Jewish Displaced Person camps and also to witness the ruins of his former hometown of Berlin.
At the same time, he dedicated himself to scientific research, experimenting with colour photo microscopy, which became the primary focus of his work during this new chapter of his life. He was regarded as a pioneer in scientific circles, and part of the exhibitions both at the Photographers’ Gallery and the Jewish Museum are dedicated to his sophisticated techniques of photographing and filming microscopic life forms.
It is worthwhile to visit the exhibition both at the Photographers’ Gallery and the Jewish Museum as they complement one other. The Photographers’ Gallery display focuses more on his career from an art historical point of view, while the exhibition at the Jewish Museum highlights him as a social and political photographer of Jewish life.
The success of this thought-provoking and meticulously researched exhibition Roman Vishniac Rediscovered lies in the fact that whilst it features many of the photographer’s most celebrated work documenting Jewish life, it also vastly expands on what is commonly remembered of Vishniac’s output. It offers a timely reappraisal of Vishniac’s work by positioning him as one of the most important social documentary photographers of the 20th Century.
In today’s political climate, when nationalism and anti-immigrant ideologies are resurging, the foreboding photographs that Vishniac took in pre-war Berlin take on a new and ghastly relevance. They can be seen as a warning how quickly an open and liberal seeming society can change into one that is dominated by discrimination and hate.
The Photographers’ Gallery, 16-18 Ramillies St, Soho, London W1F 7LW. Open Monday – Saturday 10.00-18.00, Sunday 11.00-18.00. Exhibition continues until 24 February 2019. www.thephotographersgallery.org.uk
Jewish Museum London, Raymond Burton House, 129-131 Albert Street, London NW1 7NB. Open daily 10.00-17.00, Friday 10.00-14.00. Exhibition continues until 24 February 2019. www.jewishmuseum.org.uk