Out of the Past: Roman Vishniac

By Amy Touchette

Vanishing World: From 1935 to 1938, Vishniac documented Eastern European Jewish life, such as this image of Cheder boys in Carpathian Ruthenia, in what would become the last extensive photographic record by a single photographer of communities that had existed for centuries. 

Roman Vishniac is best known for his emotional photographs of Eastern European Jewish communities prior to World War II.

He was also a widely respected scientific photographer, whose groundbreaking work in photomicroscopy continued throughout his life.

Born and raised in Russia, Vishniac immigrated to Weimar Berlin in the 1920s, where he became an accomplished social documentarian and recorded the changes occurring in prewar German society.

Between 1935 and 1938, Vishniac was commissioned by the European headquarters of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) to photograph impoverished Jewish life in Eastern Europe for use in fund-raising. Carefully curated, edited and captioned to reflect the JDC’s mission, the small percentage of Vishniac’s images that were published defined these communities largely in terms of hardship, isolation and piousness. After the war, Vishniac’s photographs, and especially his book A Vanished World were widely recognized as an iconic portrayal of Eastern European Jewish life.

After Vishniac’s passing in 1990, one third of his archive was donated to the International Center of Photography (ICP) in New York. Through a careful review of his original negatives, Vishniac scholar and ICP adjunct curator Maya Benton discovered that life among pre-Holocaust Jews was much more than a one-sided portrayal. In fact, the bulk of the archive reveals Jewish life as being plentiful, diverse and integrated with other communities. As a result, Vishniac’s place in photography, as well as prewar Jewish history in general, is now being recontextualized in a wider view.

Vishniac’s daughter, Maya Vishniac Kohn, recently gifted ICP with the balance of her father’s archive of 10,000 negatives, 12,000 prints, correspondence and personal documents. The current exhibition “Roman Vishniac Rediscovered,” on view at ICP until May 5, 2013, offers a significant first glance at the breadth of Vishniac’s work from the early 1920s through the 1950s.

Additionally, in partnership with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, ICP is developing a shared digital database of its Vishniac holdings, which will be made available for public viewing and scholarly research within the next year.

For details and to search the collection, click here.



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