Roman Vishniac

More than any other photographer, Roman Vishniac profoundly influenced contemporary impressions of Jewish life in Eastern Europe.

Roman Vishniac Rediscovered, at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco through May 29, “presents, for the first time, five decades of work by the legendary photographer who was previously known for photographs spanning only four years,” says Maya Benton, exhibition curator, from the International Center of Photography. “The vast holdings of the Roman Vishniac Archive, which includes 10,000 negatives and more than 50,000 objects, have allowed us to reposition Vishniac as one of the great photographers of the twentieth century.”

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Roman Vishniac, [Boy with kindling in a basement dwelling, Krochmalna Street, Warsaw], ca. 1935–38. Gelatin silver print. © Mara Vishniac Kohn, courtesy International Center of Photography. Roman Vishniac Rediscovered. On view February 11–May 29, 2016. The Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco.

Born in Russia in 1897 to an affluent Jewish family, Vishniac grew up in Moscow. After pursuing graduate degrees in biology and zoology, he immigrated to Berlin in 1920 in the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution. As an amateur photographer, he took to the streets, offering witty visual commentary on day-to-day life in his adopted city. This prodigious body of early work reflects the influence of European modernism and an avant-garde approach to framing and composition.

Vishniac’s development as a professional photographer coincided with the Nazi rise to power, and he tenaciously documented the ominous changes he encountered—images of campaign posters, swastika banners, and marching soldiers dominate work from this era. As restrictions on Jewish photographers increased, he was commissioned to document the work of several Jewish community and social-service organizations in Berlin. In 1935, he was hired by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC)—the world’s largest Jewish relief organization—to photograph impoverished Jewish communities in Central and Eastern Europe as part of the organization’s effort to raise funds and support. Vishniac’s four years of work on the project yielded the celebrated images that have largely defined his photographic legacy.

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Roman Vishniac, [Preparing food in a Jewish soup kitchen, Berlin], mid–to late 1930s. Gelatin silver print. © Mara Vishniac Kohn, courtesy International Center of Photography. Roman Vishniac Rediscovered. On view February 11–May 29, 2016. The Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco.

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Roman Vishniac, [David Eckstein, seven years old, and classmates in cheder (Jewish elementary school), Brod], ca. 1938. Gelatin silver print. © Mara Vishniac Kohn, courtesy International Center of Photography. Roman Vishniac Rediscovered. On view February 11–May 29, 2016. The Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco.

Following a brief period of internment in France, Vishniac arrived in New York in 1941 and opened a portrait studio to support his family. Throughout the 1940s, Vishniac continued to chronicle the impact of World War II while working to establish himself in the fields of science and photomicroscopy, or photography through the microscope. He photographed the war relief efforts of Chinese Americans in New York, he documented the arrival of Jewish refugees and Holocaust survivors, and he followed American Jewish life throughout the 1940s and 50s. In 1947, he returned to Europe to document relief efforts in Jewish Displaced Persons camps and the ruins of his former hometown, Berlin.

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Roman Vishniac, [Sara, sitting in bed in a basement dwelling, with stenciled flowers above her head, Warsaw], cs. 1935–37. Platinum print. © Mara Vishniac Kohn, courtesy International Center of Photography. Roman Vishniac Rediscovered. On view February 11–May 29, 2016. The Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco.

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Roman Vishniac, [Jewish schoolchildren, Mukacevo], ca. 1935–38. Gelatin silver print. © Mara Vishniac Kohn, courtesy International Center of Photography. Roman Vishniac Rediscovered. On view February 11–May 29, 2016. The Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco.

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Roman Vishniac, [Zionist youth building a school and foundry while learning construction techniques, Werkdorp Nieuwesluis, Wieringermeer, The Netherlands], 1939. Gelatin silver print. © Mara Vishniac Kohn, courtesy International Center of Photography. Roman Vishniac Rediscovered. On view February 11–May 29, 2016. The Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco

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Roman Vishniac, [Ernst Kaufmann, center, and unidentified Zionist youth, wearing clogs while learning construction techniques in a quarry, Werkdorp Nieuwesluis, Wieringermeer, The Netherlands], 1939. Ink-jet print. © Mara Vishniac Kohn, courtesy International Center of Photography. Roman Vishniac Rediscovered. On view February 11–May 29, 2016. The Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco.

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Roman Vishniac, [Boy standing on a mountain of rubble, Berlin], 1947. Ink-jet print. © Mara Vishniac Kohn, courtesy International Center of Photography. Roman Vishniac Rediscovered. On view February 11–May 29, 2016. The Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco.

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Roman Vishniac, The streets are free of brown battalions!, Berlin, 1947. Ink-jet print. © Mara Vishniac Kohn, courtesy International Center of Photography. Roman Vishniac Rediscovered. On view February 11–May 29, 2016. The Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco.

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Roman Vishniac, [Holocaust survivors gathering outside a building where matzoh is being made in preparations for the Passover holiday, Hénonville Displaced Persons’ Camp, Picardy, France], 1947. Ink-jet print. © Mara Vishniac Kohn, courtesy International Center of Photography. Roman Vishniac Rediscovered. On view February 11–May 29, 2016. The Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco.¬

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Roman Vishniac, [Sisters Marion, Renate, and Karen Gumprecht, refugees assisted by the National Refugee Service (NRS) and Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), shortly after their arrival in the United States, Central Park, New York], 1941. Ink-jet print. © Mara Vishniac Kohn, courtesy International Center of Photography. Roman Vishniac Rediscovered. On view February 11–May 29, 2016. The Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco.

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Roman Vishniac, [Customers waiting in line at a butcher’s counter during wartime rationing, Washington Market, New York], 1941–44. Ink-jet print. © Mara Vishniac Kohn, courtesy International Center of Photography. Roman Vishniac Rediscovered. On view February 11–May 29, 2016. The Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco.

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Roman Vishniac, [Boys exercising in the gymnasium of the Jewish Community House of Bensonhurst, Brooklyn], 1949. Gelatin silver print. © Mara Vishniac Kohn, courtesy International Center of Photography. Roman Vishniac Rediscovered. On view February 11–May 29, 2016. The Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco.

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Unidentified photographer, [Roman Vishniac holding his Rolleiflex camera], ca. 1935–38. Gelatin silver print. © Mara Vishniac Kohn, courtesy International Center of Photography. Roman Vishniac Rediscovered. On view February 11–May 29, 2016. The Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco.

As I wandered through the exhibition recently, I thought of my grandparents and, specifically, of my grandfather who grew up in a shtetl in Lantzkorunin in the early 1900s. At home, later that day, I pulled out his memoirs, written in 1986. I re-read much of it with Vishniac’s photos still whirling around my brain and thought about a life so far from mine and yet so fully connected to who I am today.

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5 Comments on Roman Vishniac

  1. Yael @ Nosherium
    February 15, 2016 at 6:05 am (2 years ago)

    I’m planning on going to see the exhibit in the next month or so. I can’t wait!

    Reply
    • Julie Levine
      February 18, 2016 at 2:45 pm (2 years ago)

      I’d love to hear what you think after seeing the show.

      Reply
  2. Yael
    February 15, 2016 at 11:20 pm (2 years ago)

    Wow!!!

    Reply
  3. David L
    February 15, 2016 at 11:27 pm (2 years ago)

    Nice!! How did you select the photos you wanted to share?

    Reply
    • Julie Levine
      February 18, 2016 at 2:45 pm (2 years ago)

      It was not easy! There were so many great photos to choose from.

      Reply

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