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Some Thoughts on Roman Vishniac

Nicholas Jahr
May 1, 2013

by Nicholas Jahr

The International Center of Photography has taken a break from their usual work memorializing the Spanish Civil War -- just kidding, they have what looks like a great retro of Chim’s work (Dawid Szymin) on the ground floor -- to present an impressive look at the work of Roman Vishniac. Drawn from a treasure trove of 10,000 negatives, the majority of which have apparently never been seen or printed (and were first digitized in the summer of 2012), the show makes a convincing case for Vishniac’s place in the canon, releasing him from the ghettos his work illuminated and with which he’s become almost exclusively associated.

Vishniac was born in 1897 to Russian Jews in Pavlovsk, near St. Petersburg. There he was made to feel a member of “the lowest caste . . . exposed to defamation and persecution,” as he wrote in a 1942 letter to FDR (featured in the exhibition) accompanying some of his photos. “The Bolsheviks too persecuted, hunted, and chased me, this time not as a Jew but as a non-adherent of their party.” In 1920, he fled to Berlin. “Everywhere I was a stranger.”

The curation notes that many of Vishniac’s early photos, particularly his street scenes, were often taken from doorways, at a distance from his subjects, who were unaware of his presence. It isn’t really until he starts shooting in the soup kitchens and shtetls that he engages with his subjects. The early work demonstrates an unexpected command of technique and willingness to experiment that places him comfortably in the pantheon.

The show features two gorgeous photos of train stations, and the modern fascination with them goes as far back as the stations themselves, these fundamentally new spaces of grit and smoke where everything solid melted into air and identities were dissolved and recast. Spaces where just about everyone was a stranger:

Vishniac photo of Berlin railway station Vishniac photo of Anhalter Bahnhof railway terminus

Consider Brassai’s image of the Gare Saint-Lazare (left) or Stieglitz’s image of the New York yards (right):

Photo by Brassai of the Gare Saint-Lazare Photo by Alfred Stieglitz of New York Central train yards.

You can reach all the way back to Monet: here’s the Gare Saint-Lazare in 1877.

Painting of the Gare Saint-Lazare by Monet

Photo of window washer balancing on a ladder, Berlin, by Roman VishniacArchitectural study by Walker Evans

On the left is Vishniac’s Window washer balancing on a ladder, Berlin (mid 1930’s); on the right is Walker Evans’ Architectural Study, New York (circa 1929). Both toy with shadow as an almost solid, structural element. But even Vishniac’s formal experiments never push fully into abstraction; they still feature the human figure. I don’t think there’s a single image in the main body of the retrospective which doesn’t.

Vishniac Chimney Sweep Bricklayer's Mate, Photo by August Sander Vishniac Carrier of Heavy Loads, Lodz

The photo in the middle is August Sander’s famous Bricklayer’s Mate (1928); it’s flanked by Vishniac’s Chimney Sweep, Berlin (left, ca 1927-29) and Carrier of heavy loads, Lodz (right, ca 1935-38). Vishniac’s work isn’t as iconic as Sander’s; his subjects are situated in the real circumstances of their lives, in the places in which (presumably) he encountered them.

Rodchenko Photo from balcony of group assembling for demonstration. Vishniac photo of interior courtyard of a home on Nalewki Street.To the left is Rodchenko’s Assembling for a Demonstration (ca 1928-30); on the right is Vishniac’s Interior courtyard of a home on Nalewki Street, a shopping district in the Jewish district of Warsaw (ca 1935-38). There is the same interest in sheer height, the unprecedented vertical living made possible by modern construction. Vishniac can’t quite match Rodchenko’s daring, but who does. (There’s a third Rodchenko photo that really belongs here, looking from the ground up at what was then an ultra-modern building, but I can’t find a good copy at the moment.) Rodchenko emphasizes the vertiginous sense of possibility, of history on the march; Vishniac the compressed, cramped space of day-to-day life.

If Vishniac never ultimately embraced the formal experimentation of many of his contemporaries, he clearly shared their concerns and vocabulary, and his grasp of the moment of decision is as sharp as Robert Capa’s. Once the AJDC began commissioning work from him, his focus shifts decisively to the lives of his subjects. (Which is not to say his formal concerns vanish; far from it. The Zionist Realist work he produces on assignment in the Netherlands ranks with the best of the genre.)

The work from Mukacevo and the shtetlach of eastern Europe that made Vishniac famous also offers up some surprises, not least of which is the uncropped version of the photo of Mukacevo school children that provided the cover for the posthumously published To Give Them Light. Here’s the version that was reproduced in the book (the pallor of the cheder boy is the fault of my iPhone’s camera):

Photo of a cheder boy, by Roman Vishniac

And here’s the uncropped print:

Photo of Jewish schoolchildren, Mukacevo by Roman Vishniac

Energized by the child in the lower right, the bustle and blur, the grip of the figure to the left, the full image teems with life. By the time it was originally published, the central child had long since become an orphan of history, someone who would’ve grown old in a tradition the viewer knows has been snuffed out. The full image restores a measure of vibrancy, a sense of the vitality of the community.

But the most extraordinary work on display -- perhaps the highlight of the show -- is the ten or fifteen minutes of outtakes from film footage Vishniac shot for the AJDC in the village of Vysni Apsa in Carpathian Ruthenia. He’d been commissioned to shoot three films, all of which have been lost. What remains are images of a Jewish farming community, men and women working the land, on horseback, kids weaving, studying, the pages of their books numinous. Utterly unaware of the catastrophe bearing down on them.

It’s difficult to view Vishniac’s work outside the contours of that catastrophe, particularly given that documenting its course -- from the Nazi iconography infecting the streets of Berlin to their post-war ruin -- was essentially his life project. It’s hard to see the Jews of Vysni Apsa and Mukacevo as anything but doomed. But Vishniac was documenting a community in need of relief, not one in need of escape. Although the plea became a eulogy, it’s worth trying to see these scenes as they were shot, as they were seen by those who lived them, and not simply as a vision of the inevitable victims of an annihilating modernity, whether that of the Luftmensch or the Einsaztzgruppen.

Trying to remove these images from the context of the Holocaust is challenging at best, and perhaps impossible. And it’s not as if Vishniac himself was unaware of the threat. Several photos of Berlin streetscapes feature his daughter Maya, who he posed in front of storefronts in order to surreptitiously capture Nazi imagery. In a quote accompanying these images, she says: “I grew up in Berlin with a sense of danger and dread combined with a perceived obligation not to show fear. I was aware of personal danger and knew that whatever happened to me, my parents could offer no help. That was every day life.”

Children feature prominently throughout Vishniac’s work, their irrepressible joy and awe, their unimpeachable suffering. They make excellent press; they’re blameless. Vishniac clearly had a way of making them feel at ease in front of his camera, of drawing out and emphasizing these qualities. His work evinces a profound empathy for the experience of childhood, its raw force, its emotional extremes, its incarnation of potential.

Toward the end of the show, there’s a photo of Vishniac’s son Wolf, standing by the rail of a ship as it enters the sanctuary of New York harbor. Unbelievably, it’s dated 1 January 1941. In the print Wolf is basically in shadow, the Statue of Liberty in relatively sharp focus off in the distance. The actual promise of Wolf’s youth has been lost; the abstract promise of freedom gained. It seems to sum up the life of an entire generation.

The exhibition even includes a slideshow of Vishniac’s color microphotoscopy work (which it sounds like may have been the product that really paid the bills), much of which is fabulously beautiful:

Vishniac photo of Vitamin B2

That’s Vitamin B2, Riboflavin. This work is almost revelatory; after the black-and-white years of the war Vishniac turns to a natural world of unbelievably vivid color. It’s like a rebirth. The historical world -- stark, straightforward, and (it’s still hard to shake) predetermined -- has been left behind for the natural one, not in the sense of the world of tilled fields and recalcitrant earth, but of phenomena invisible to the naked eye, vibrant, complex, and unpredictable. A world from which people are absent.

All this is enough to wish you could see a whole lot more (and maybe even that Chim wasn’t occupying the ground floor), but what’s on display is still an impressively rich selection of work. Roman Vishniac Rediscovered closes on May 5th. Go now.

Nicholas Jahr is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn and a member of Jewish Currents’ editorial board. In the past he has written for the magazine about comics, film, the diaspora, Israeli elections, and Palestinian nonviolence. His work has appeared in the International New York Times, The Nation, City & State, and the Village Voice (RIP).