Roman Vishniac: Picturing a World
A snapshot of the life of the famed photographer.
He was an art collector, an art history teacher, a zoologist, a biologist, and versatile photographer. His photographic accomplishments span the 1920s all the way to the 1970s and include cosmopolitan street life and culture, time-lapsed photography, celebrity portraits, and colored microscopic images. Yet, his legacy indisputably remains with the tender cheder boys and schoolgirls, the street peddlers, and the homeless beggars – snapshots he took of European Jews during the 1930s right before an entire people vanished. His book, A Vanished World, is notably one of the most detailed and poignant pictorial documentations of Jewish culture in Eastern Europe.
Roman Vishniac was born in 1897 to a prosperous Jewish family in Pavlosk, and raised in Moscow. His interests were evident early on in life when his grandmother gave him a camera and a microscope for his seventh birthday. Vishniac was said to have attached the camera to the microscope, magnifying the muscles in a cockroach’s leg three times and then photographing it, producing his very first work. He used this microscope extensively, photographing everything he could find, from protozoa to fish scales.
In the years 1917-19, Vishniac’s family moved to Berlin, Germany, following a rise in anti-Semitism that came with the Bolshevik Revolution. He married Luta Bagg, a Jewish woman from Latvia, and then followed his family to Berlin in 1920, where he and his wife had two children, Mara and Wolf. In Berlin, Vishniac studied Eastern art at the University of Berlin, researched endocrinology and optics, and joined amateur camera clubs.
Known for his images of common street life, Vishniac displayed his early talents in the snapshots he took on the streets of Berlin. Though they were in black and white and taken with the light of a lantern or any other available light, his work was described as “amazingly crisp with surprising depth of field.”
Charles Fenyveson, in his review of the work The Vanished World, as quoted in The Smithsonian magazine said, “There is a grainy realism to Vishniac’s photographic style. We can almost finger the coarse textures of coats and shawls…”
The tone of Vishniac’s photos took a dramatic turn after the Nazi party’s rise to power. Photos of a free society were suddenly replaced by snapshots portraying a society of militarism and fascism. His photos depicted Nazi soldiers marching through the streets, anti-Semitic and pro-Aryan propaganda, and banners with swastikas. One famous photo depicts his daughter Mara standing in front of a store in Berlin selling devices for differentiating between Jews and non-Jews by the measurements of their skull.
As Vishniac continued documenting the Nazi rise to power, foreboding signs of oppression soon became a focal point of his work. A common theme of his images in the early 1930s revolved around activities of German Jewish relief organizations in response to the challenges: people waiting on line to procure emigration visas, newly established soup kitchens for the poor, and the signs of the poverty plaguing the German-boycotted Jewish businesses.
In 1935, as anti-Semitism continued to rear its ugly head, Vishniac was commissioned by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) in Central Europe to photograph Jewish communities in Eastern Europe as part of a fund-raising drive to help gain sympathy from wealthy Jews and to support those poor communities. His published pictures largely centered on people, usually in small groups, going about their daily lives, often without regard to the photographer. With his compassionate Jewish eye, he traveled throughout Eastern Europe documenting soulful representations of threads of life that would be lost forever: curious pig-tailed school girls in tattered clothing, smiling boys with side-locks holding tattered books, peddlers selling their housewares, hungry, impoverished toddlers, and homeless street beggars. To quote The Smithsonian, which describes the scenes he depicted: “The eyes peer at us suspiciously from behind ancient basement windows and over a peddler’s tray, from crowded schoolrooms and desolate street corners.” Gene Thornton, a writer for The New York Times, called them “somber with poverty and with the gray light of European Winter.” Indeed, Vishniac’s pictures and his camera lens have become the lens through which many of us identify the dark era. They have been copied, reprinted, illustrated, and publicized in different forms throughout the world.
As Jewish life continued to deteriorate with increasing oppression, Vishniac’s endeavor became not just a bold adventure, but his life’s mission and raison d`etre. It was, in his words, “to preserve – in pictures, at least – a world that might soon cease to exist.” Vishniac claimed that he carried his heavy camera equipment (weighing 115 pounds) on his back while trekking many miles and up steep roads. He described dressing as a Nazi storm trooper and marching through Berlin in order to capture images on Kristallnacht; posing as either a “local Jew” or a “Lithuanian salesman” to ensure his subjects’ confidence; being imprisoned in Poland and bribing guards for return of his camera; and developing his images during the night, at a riverside, under cover of darkness.
In addition to his drive to preserve memory of the Jews, he actively fought to increase awareness in the West of the worsening situation in Eastern Europe. In late 1938, he snuck into Zbasyn, an internment camp in Germany, where Jews were sent to await deportation to Poland. After photographing the barracks for two days, he escaped to life by jumping from the second floor of the barracks at night and creeping away, managing to bypass broken glass and barbed wire. The photos he took were sent to the League of Nations in Geneva to prove the existence of such camps.
In 1939, Vishniac left a seething Europe for Sweden. His wife joined him shortly after, having procured an emigration visa through the assistance of the JDC. After traveling to France and being interned in a deportation camp there for three months, he was finally able to escape to the US with his family. Vishniac’s parents hid in France throughout the war and survived.
He wrote in the introduction to A Vanished World, “Through my personal grief, I see in my mind’s eye the faces of six million of my people… who were brutally murdered… the entire world stood by and did nothing,”
Of the 16,000 pictures he took, less than 2,000 reached America in the 1940s. These had been carefully sewn into his garments or smuggled in with a friend through Cuba. Thousands were left behind in France with his friend, Clermont Ferrand, who hid them under the floorboards and behind picture frames. Vishniac was reunited with the negatives when they were smuggled out of France in 1942.
Once in the United States, Vishniac again tried desperately to get American Jews to sympathize with those trapped in Eastern Europe. To that end, in 1942 he displayed his work at the New School for Social Research and held major exhibitions at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in 1944 and in 1945.
When his work was exhibited at Colombia University in 1943, he wrote to Eleanor Roosevelt asking her to visit the exhibit, but she did not. Today the exhibit at the National Institute of Photography also displays the letter that Vishniac sent to President Roosevelt for his 60th birthday. With it, he included a gift of five photographs of Eastern European Jews in order, in his words, to illustrate the “infinite disaster and injustice” of the Nazi party.
To earn a living, Vishniac opened a small photography studio on the Upper West Side and began establishing himself as a science photographer. During that time, he also traveled to Princeton and snapped photos of Einstein while he was lost in thought. Einstein considered the resulting portraits his favorite. In 1947, Vishniac once again returned to Europe at the behest of the JDC, to photograph the Jews in the DP camps. He hoped to garner sympathy and money for them.
Vishniac remained active until his last years. In 1957, he was appointed a research associate at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and in 1961 was promoted to “professor of biological education.” In his later years, he became “Chevron Professor of Creativity” at Pratt Institute, where he taught courses on the philosophy of photography. He is also known for his pictures of microscopic biology.
Vishniac died in 1990 at the age of 92.
Despite all of his accomplishments, he most certainly gained international acclaim through his documenting prewar Europe. In his lifetime, some of his photographs were published in Polish Jews (1947), A Vanished World (1969), and To Give Them Light (1992).
His works have been displayed in art and history museums worldwide, in Columbia University, The Jewish Museum of New York and the International Center of Photography. In August 2014, the International Center for Photography in New York City announced that 9,000 of Vishniac’s photos, many never printed or published before, would be posted on an online database (which is available for public viewing today). They also published outtakes of two of his films which were destroyed, but pieced together.
If we can say that both the actual photograph and the eye of the photographer play equally important roles on the impact of the image itself, it is for certain that is the case with Vishniac’s photos. Mara Vishniac Kohn, the photographer’s daughter, reminisces: “His photographs actually reach the inner experience of the person looking at them. It is… a hallmark of his Jewish photography… that he is able to make an emotional connection with the viewer.”
Some say that Vishniac’s photos immortalized the Jews of prewar Europe. Whether we agree with that sentiment or not, if the photographs of their lives in their purity and piety, in their joy and pain, and in their suffering and deprivation have moved us to a better place, they have certainly been immortalized in the hearts of the Jewish people. May their memories and his be a blessing.