Roman Vishniac Rediscovered: CJM exhibit captures six decades of iconic images

“A Vanished World,” Roman Vishniac’s wrenching photographic record of pre-Holocaust life in impoverished Eastern Europe, made its way to the coffee tables and bookshelves of more than 250,000 U.S. homes after its 1983 publication. The photos, commissioned in 1935 by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee as part of a large fundraising effort to bring relief to poverty-stricken European Jews, are perhaps the best-known record of Vishniac’s work.

Roman Vishniac

But Vishniac, in a career spanning six decades, was much more than a social documentarian. In the just-opened “Roman Vishniac Rediscovered” exhibition at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum, viewers will also discover Vishniac the commercial photographer, Vishniac the modernist-inspired photographer, Vishniac the scientific photographer, and more.

Art historian and curator Maya Benton, who organized this traveling show for the International Center of Photography in New York, hopes museumgoers will recognize Vishniac “not only as one of the greatest Jewish photographers” — in the pantheon with Richard Avedon, Diane Arbus, Irving Penn, Robert Capa and Man Ray — “but one of the greatest photographers, Jewish or otherwise.”

Born into relative affluence to a secular Jewish family in Russia in 1897, Vishniac was schooled in the biological and zoological sciences before fleeing the 1917 Bolshevik revolution and settling in Berlin. A self-taught photographer, he became part of the vibrant arts scene. An early 1930s shot of the Leipzig Central Station demonstrates his aesthetic acumen and his deft interplay of light and shadow.

In another 1930s image in the exhibit, “People behind the bars, Berlin zoo,” he angled his camera in such a way to suggest the polar bears in the frame are observing humans in captivity, a sly commentary on the Nazis’ increasingly restrictive policies against German Jews.

“Villagers in the Carpathian Mountains,” circa 1935–38 photos/cjm-courtesy international center of photography

After Vishniac and his family fled Germany for New York in 1941, he reinvented himself as a commercial photographer — out of necessity. Like thousands of other Jewish refugees from war-torn Europe, “he was trying to make ends meet,” said Benton. “It was about survival and adaptation.”

The scores of images featured in “Rediscovered” show Vishniac’s virtuosity and wide-ranging interests during a 92-year lifetime; he died in New York in 1990. The exhibit includes stunning portraits of scientists, artists, musicians and actors; scenes of New York’s Chinatown; and documentation of post-World War II devastation in Germany and the displaced persons camps.

Perhaps Vishniac’s most striking, albeit least known images are of the natural world: insects, mold, plant life, cells and tissues. Vishniac grew up with both microscopes and cameras, and his passion for these instruments comes into play, particularly in his later work. For years, Vishniac had regular-paying gigs at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, and he also photographed the work of marine biologist and conservationist Rachel Carson.

The “Rediscovered” exhibit devotes a section to Vishniac’s documentation of animal, cellular and marine life, but it goes beyond that, recreating a laboratory-like room with microscopes and other apparatus that the photographer used.

Newly arrived refugee sisters in Central Park, New York, 1941

“He was a pioneer of shooting photographs and film through a microscope,” said Vishniac’s granddaughter Naomi Schiff, a longtime Bay Area resident, who recalled visits to Vishniac’s Upper West Side Manhattan apartment, where one room was set up as a lab.

“He always gave my brother and me magnifying glasses and microscopes as gifts. … One time, when he came out to California to visit us, he got off the plane carrying a 4-inch cockroach, something exotic and fancy, not one that would infest your apartment.”

Schiff added that while her grandfather was always a strongly self-identified Jew who felt connected to Jewish culture, “if he had any religion, it was about life.”

For curator Benton, who has been studying and archiving Vishniac’s work for almost two decades — since her graduate school days at Harvard — his photographs have personal as well as aesthetic resonance. She discovered early on in her research that Vishniac shot pictures at the displaced persons camp where her grandparents lived for a number of years after World War II with their young daughter, Benton’s mother.

In their later years, Benton’s grandparents, who eventually settled in Marin County, learned about another iconic Vishniac image, “From Slonim the roads are leading everywhere in the world.” The signpost in the picture indicates distances to communities in northeastern Poland, including 72 kilometers to Nowogrodek, their hometown.

That picture is in the opening pages of “Vishniac Rediscovered,” edited by Benton, which includes hundreds of the photographer’s images, with essays by Jewish studies scholars. A 2015 National Jewish Book Award finalist, the book is on sale at the CJM Museum Store.

“Roman Vishniac Rediscovered,”
through May 29 at Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission St., S.F.

Robert Nagler Miller
Robert Nagler Miller

Robert Nagler Miller, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Wesleyan University, received his master's degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. For more than 25 years, he worked as a writer and editor at a variety of nonprofits in the Los Angeles and Bay Areas. In 2016, he and his husband, Dr. Arnold Friedlander, relocated to Chicago. Robert loves schmoozing, noshing, kvetching, Scrabble, reading and NPR.