Roman Vishniac: Photography, 1920–1975
More than any other photographer, Roman Vishniac’s images have profoundly influenced contemporary notions of Jewish life in Eastern Europe. Vishniac created the most widely recognized and reproduced photographic record of that world on the eve of its annihilation, yet only a small fraction of his work was published or printed during his lifetime. Known primarily for this poignant record, Vishniac was in fact a remarkably versatile and innovative photographer. His body of work spans more than five decades, ranging from early engagements with European modernism in the 1920s to highly inventive color photomicroscopy in the 1950s and ’60s. Roman Vishniac: Photography, 1920-1975 introduced a radically diverse body of work—much of it only recently discovered—and repositioned Vishniac’s iconic photographs of Eastern European Jewry within a broader tradition of 1930s social documentary photography.
Born in 1897 to an affluent Russian-Jewish family, Vishniac was raised in Moscow, where he studied zoology and biology. He immigrated to Berlin in 1920 in the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution. As an amateur photographer he took to the streets, offering witty and wry visual commentary on his adopted city while experimenting with new approaches to framing and composition. As Vishniac documented the Nazi rise to power, foreboding signs of oppression soon became a focal point of his work. In 1935, he was commissioned by the European headquarters of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (AJDC)—the world’s largest Jewish relief organization—to photograph impoverished Jewish communities in Eastern Europe. Vishniac’s four years of work on the project yielded the celebrated images that have largely defined his photographic legacy.
Arriving to New York on New Year’s Eve 1940, Vishniac opened a portrait studio, working to make ends meet by documenting American Jewish communal and immigrant life, while establishing himself as a pioneer in the field of photomicroscopy. In 1947, he returned to Europe and documented Jewish Displaced Persons’ Camps, the efforts of Holocaust survivors to rebuild their lives, emigration and relief efforts, and the ruins of Berlin.
Roman Vishniac: Photography, 1920-1975 was a comprehensive reappraisal of Vishniac’s total photographic output, from his early years in Berlin through the postwar period in America. The exhibition drew from the Roman Vishniac archive at ICP and served as an introduction to a vast assemblage of more than 30,000 objects, including recently discovered vintage prints, rare moving film footage, contact sheets, personal correspondence, and exhibition prints made from his recently digitized negatives.
Maya Benton, Curator of Vishniac Archive
International Center of Photography
Roman Vishniac: Photography, 1920-1975
Roman Vishniac: Photography, 1920-1975 was organized by the International Center of Photography, New York. It was made possible with support from Mara Vishniac Kohn, whose generosity founded the Roman Vishniac Archive at ICP, and from The Andrew and Marina Lewin Family Foundation, Estanne and Martin Fawer, The David Berg Foundation, The Righteous Persons Foundation, The Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany, The National Endowment for the Arts, The Olitsky Family Foundation, the ICP Exhibitions Committee, James and Merryl Tisch, The Koret Foundation, Caryl & Israel Englander, and several anonymous donors.
Coordinator of the exhibition: