Best known for his work documenting the years leading up to World War II and the Holocaust, Russian-born photographer Roman Vishniac, who died in 1990, created a more diverse body of work than is commonly supposed. A new exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts, based on a rarely seen archive, aims to showcase this lesser-known side of the photographer.
Roman Vishniac Rediscovered spans more than four decades and includes portrait photographs, as well as pioneering work in photomicroscopy. The exhibit also highlights Vishniac’s many influences, from street photography to European Modernism.
“It’s always exciting when you can show a different side of someone, especially someone so well-known for a specific thing,” says Allison Pappas, assistant curator of photography at the MFA. “Vishniac is known for photographs of Jewish life in Eastern Europe on the verge of the Holocaust and this exhibit shows the full scope of his career.”
The exhibit originated at the International Center of Photography in New York in 2013, where curator Maya Benton worked extensively with Vishniac’s daughter, sorting through thousands of unlabeled negatives and single slides to pull together the fullest picture of his life.
Born in Russia in 1897, Vishniac and his family fled after the revolution, making their way to Berlin, where Vishniac began documenting street scenes as an amateur photographer. By the mid-1930s, he was producing the work for which he’s best known today: images that captured traditional Jewish life, the rise of anti-Semitism and the modernization of Eastern Europe.
According to Pappas, Vishniac “sort of mythologized these photos,” claiming that he’d taken them on his own accord, although after his death it was revealed that they’d been commissioned by the Joint Distribution Committee, a Jewish charity based in the United States. Starting in 1938, the JDC and other organizations exhibited the photos in an effort to raise awareness of German aggression against Jews.
“This opens up a different view of even his well-known photographs,” Pappas says. “There are lots of photos that weren’t published at the time and the ones that were used primarily focused on impoverished children and faith practices to support the JDC’s initiatives. In this exhibit we’re able to show the full range of everyday life Vishniac documented, which reveals a more nuanced perspective of a vibrant world where the modern and traditional coexisted.” Not all of the photos show suffering and hardship; some depict street scenes and ordinary life.
In 1940, Vishniac traveled to Paris, where he was arrested by the pro-Nazi Vichy regime for dubious political reasons (including being a “stateless person”) and sent to a deportation camp. Thanks to his wife’s efforts, Vishniac was released after a month and fled with his family to New York City, where he opened a portrait studio with a client list that came to include Jewish artists and luminaries, among them Albert Einstein and Marc Chagall. He shot photos in New York’s first integrated nightclub and began early work in photomicroscopy, producing highly detailed images of everything from insects to snowflakes to amino acids.
“In New York he focused on youth, hope and optimism after the war,” Pappas says.
Yet Vishniac continued to try to improve the plight of impoverished and displaced Jews in Eastern Europe. In 1947 he documented the rebuilding of cities and lives there, as well as Israel’s early years of statehood. Before the ICP exhibition, few of the photos had ever been seen publicly.
Vishniac’s lifelong obsession with zoology and biology is also revealed, particularly his work in the ’50s using color microscopy to photograph everything from mating insects to blood circulating inside a hamster’s cheek. Pictures from the period won numerous awards, were featured on the covers of magazines like Omni and Nature, and then promptly became another forgotten part of Vishniac’s legacy, one ripe for the ICP’s rediscovery.