We’ve known about Roman Vishniac’s wistful photographs of shtetl life, taken between 1934 and 1938, for some time—A Vanished World was published thirty-five years ago and has hardly been forgotten. Vishniac’s first monograph, Polish Jews, was published in 1947, and the same year saw his work appear in The Vanished World: Jewish Cities – Jewish People, an anthology commissioned by a Jewish aid organization to show impoverished communities in Eastern Europe. Some of these photographs are unbearably poignant, like the one of a Yeshiva boy whose luminous innocence and smiling eyes under a broad-brimmed hat light up his tender face as he glances at an older classmate. The setting for the image is a town in western Ukraine—Mukachevo—where the Jewish population would soon be exterminated.
What has now emerged—thanks to Maya Benton’s research into a rich archive of Vishniac’s work—is the realization that the photographer’s record of pre-Holocaust Jewish life is actually more varied and less sentimental than what is suggested by the plaintive images we see in A Vanished World. Kaleidoscopic and secular in scope, his work from this period depicts people who are not simply defined by poverty or religion.
Until recently, Vishniac’s absorption of modernist influences and the range and depth of his photographic oeuvre were not formally recognized. What awaits visitors to the two London exhibitions, Roman Vishniac Rediscovered (simultaneously held at The Photographers’ Gallery and the Jewish Museum), is the pleasurable surprise of uncovering many overlooked facets of someone whose photographic career stretched from the 1920s to the late 1970s.
Born in Russia in 1897 and raised in Moscow, Roman Vishniac studied biology and zoology before joining his affluent parents, who immigrated to Berlin after the October Revolution. Already in possession of a camera, and responding to Berlin’s cultural energy and political disruptiveness, he began to eagerly document his surroundings. At the two London venues (both exhibition spaces show the same story different selections from his body of work), it is his Berlin photographs that haunt viewers with their unsettling ability to conflate moments of ordinary street life with the foreboding of something terrible yet to come.
One such photograph shows a German couple, each holding an arm of their child as they cross a cobbled street in front of the Vfa-Palast movie theatre. Like the photographer, they cannot know that the cinema will soon be destroyed by Allied bombing, and they are as unaware of the camera pointing directly at them as they are of the hideous future they are walking towards. Retrospection allows history to frame the scene with pathos, but not with knowledge of what motivated Vishniac to position himself on the pavement facing them, capturing their steps as they walk towards where he stands. In appearance, the couple looks respectably bourgeois—the class whose votes were decisive in putting the Nazis into power—and perhaps the photographer sensed the danger they represented.
Vishniac, walking the streets of Berlin, possesses the flâneur’s eye for detail, but whimsy or psychogeography is not what attracts his eye. Nor is there the sense, felt as a nostalgic undercurrent in A Vanished World, of a conscious need to chronicle a way of life precariously untouched by modernity. In Berlin, there is no elegiac melancholy for scenes of life on the verge of belonging to the past; it is the living present that concerns him, albeit one increasingly permeated with a premonitory instinct nurtured by intimate knowledge of pogroms emanating from the East. Like the sculptor who speaks of releasing what already exists in a block of stone, he brings out a social ecology that, to some extent, laid hidden, but which now resides dangerously close to the urbane surface of a modern European metropolis.
There is another unique aspect to his work from these Berlin years: an aesthetic dimension that lies alongside his awareness of the precarious plight of Jewish citizens in Weimar Germany. His photographs reveal a modernist accent that responds to urbanism’s spatial geometries and the shifting patterns of light and shadow in a built environment. The noir-ish chiaroscuro of his shot inside the Anhalter Bahnhof railway station (which was later almost completely destroyed by Allied bombing), as well as his photo of a window-washer balancing on a ladder, are two examples of the new aesthetic he was in the process of acquiring.
But he must have sensed that the Fascists were moving in quickly, and in one photo of street life a swastika flag is seen above a store front. Nazism never marched into the city as it did in Vienna and Paris—it crept in. And Vishniac, alert to its pace, took photos that were more explicit than any he had taken before. He had his daughter, Mara, pose in front of an election poster for Hindenburg and Hitler that reads, “The Marshal and the Corporeal: Fight with Us for Peace and Equal Rights.” Lies were ever such.
After Kristallnacht, Vishniac and his family left Germany and eventually, at the start of 1941, arrived and settled in New York. It was the beginning of a new life and a new phase in his photographic career. He dabbled with portrait shots of celebrities—Einstein and Chagall are among a small selection on show at The Photographers’ Gallery—before returning to biology and zoology by way of photomicroscopy. He was absorbed in this for decades, and it was not until the 1980s, with the publication of A Vanished World, that his documentary work gained public attention.
The exhibition at The Photographers’ Gallery is a retrospective of Vishniac’s diverse career, while the Jewish Museum’s exhibition focuses more on his interest in Jewish subjects. What comes across in both venues is a prescient awareness of Jewish endangerment, and an instinctive feel for human moments amid the quotidian. This sentiment comes together in a captivating close-up of an elderly man in conversation with a woman who could be his granddaughter. It is a private moment, with notes of anxiety and interiority, leaving the viewer wondering about the topic of their conversation.
But such is Vishniac’s versatility that another photo of three young sisters, taken in New York in 1941, enthralls the viewer with its quality of composition and Janus-like perspective. The sisters have reached America as Jewish refugees, and the picture does have this retrospection built into it, but the girls are in Central Park—they are safe. Their faces and posture do not suggest fear or upheaval, and they are able to look ahead without trepidation. The exhibition’s title, Roman Vishniac Rediscovered, fully justifies itself.
Editor’s Note: The exhibition Roman Vishniac Rediscovered is on in London at The Photographers’ Gallery and the Jewish Museum until February 24, 2019. The book Roman Vishniac Rediscovered by Maya Bention was published in 2015 by Prestel.