A photograph by Roman Vishniac, subject of the new documentary "Vishniac," which is screening as part of the 2023 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.
A photograph by Roman Vishniac, subject of the new documentary "Vishniac," which is screening as part of the 2023 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.

‘Vishniac’: At S.F. Jewish Film Fest, unflinching documentary shines light on famed photographer

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For much of her life, Mara Vishniac Kohn felt conflicted about her father, the legendary Russian Jewish photographer Roman Vishniac.

She deeply respected the historical importance of his images chronicling Jewish life in Europe between 1935 and 1938. He created a vital and enduring photographic record of a community on the brink of destruction and is perhaps best known for “A Vanished World,” a collection that’s been compared to the work of fellow renowned documentary photographers Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange.

But Vishniac’s daughter also described him as a self-aggrandizing storyteller prone to exaggerations so big that his family sometimes didn’t know where the truth ended and lies began.

“He regarded himself as a mixture of Moses and Superman,” Kohn says early in the documentary “Vishniac,” which screens at the 43rd San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. The fascinating film goes behind Vishniac’s lens to capture, largely through his daughter’s eyes, both his personal shortcomings and his multifaceted brilliance. Among his achievements, Vishniac was a nature-revering biologist who helped pioneer ​​​​photomicroscopy, the art of taking photos through a microscope to make the unseen visible.

Ultimately, his daughter could “compartmentalize the flawed parts of his personality and the amazing work,” Laura Bialis, the film’s producer and director, said over Zoom from her home in Santa Barbara. (Bialis, who is a Stanford graduate, turned to one of her former history professors, Norman Naimark, to serve as a consultant on the film.)

Kohn, in fact, went on to become one of her father’s greatest champions. Following his death in 1990 at age 92, Kohn edited three books reproducing his images and helped to exhibit his photographs worldwide.

In 2018, she donated his archive — tens of thousands of photos, hundreds of audiovisual recordings and a trove of personal artifacts — to the Magnes Collection of Jewish Life and Art in Berkeley. Kohn died that same year at age 92 before seeing the final cut of “Vishniac.”

Her father’s most iconic photos stem from a 1935 Jewish Joint Distribution Committee assignment to record the daily lives of impoverished Jews across Central and Eastern Europe in hopes of boosting awareness and fundraising among Americans. The breathtaking, sometimes heart-wrenching black-and-white images capture young boys studying Hebrew texts at a Jewish school in the Carpathian Mountains, Jewish vendors and elderly beggars on the crowded streets of Warsaw and children at play in a cobblestone alley in Bratislava.

Some photos are somber, others full of joy. Subjects often look directly into the camera. There is an empathy to the images, a clear connection between photographer and photographed.

“I would ask him about the people in the pictures, and he would say things like, ‘That’s our family. These are our people,’” Kohn, her father’s frequent darkroom helper as a child, recalls in the film.

The versatile photographer’s work also includes images of postwar Germany and of Israel after the 1967 Six-Day War, as well as portraits of intellectuals and artists such as Albert Einstein and Marc Chagall. (A new exhibit, “Cities and Wars: Roman Vishniac in Berlin and Jerusalem 1947/1967,” opens at the Magnes on Aug. 29.)

“What you see in the film is a fraction of the amazing stuff,” said Bialis, an American Israeli filmmaker whose other documentaries include “Rock in the Red Zone,” about musicians in the rocket-besieged town of Sderot in southern Israel.

Laura Bilais, director of "Vishniac"
Laura Bilais, director of “Vishniac”

Bialis first met Kohn more than 20 years ago when a friend introduced them at an Elie Wiesel lecture. Before realizing who Kohn’s father was, Bialis found herself captivated by the dramatic story of Kohn’s family escaping Nazi Germany and arriving in New York in 1940.

Years later, when the pair reconnected, Bialis felt that it was time to tell Roman Vishniac’s fascinating story. And she knew she wanted to do it through his daughter.

At first, Kohn hesitated because of her complex feelings toward her father. During her parents’ troubled marriage, he had an affair, and Kohn recalls him being so absorbed in his work that he often felt remote. But she came to understand that ultimately what mattered most was preserving his work and its legacy.

“We became friends,” Bialis said, “and the story just kept pouring out of her.”

“Vishniac”

(93 minutes) 3 p.m. Saturday, July 22 at Castro Theatre, 429 Castro St., S.F.

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.