Roman Vishniac often cut his negatives apart and seldom labeled them, so Maya Benton, the adjunct curator at the ICP who oversees the photographer’s vast archive, is accustomed to finding pictures she can’t identify. But one series had her truly stumped. They seemed to show Zionist youth working on a structure some time in the ’30s or early ’40s. But Benton knew that Vishniac didn’t visit Israel until the ’60s. Finally, peering through a loupe, she spotted an odd detail—a wooden clog. She sent the picture to colleagues at Amsterdam’s Jewish museum, and they told her about the Werkdorp, a Zionist training camp in Holland where middle-and upper-class German Jewish children were sent to learn skills they’d need in Palestine. Using this clue, Benton was able to reconstruct Vishniac’s 1939 journey to document a nearly forgotten chapter in prewar Western European Jewish life.
Shot from below, the Werkdorp picture celebrates the strong, healthy bodies of the youths, playing off a rhythmic geometry in a manner that reminds Benton of Rodchenko. In other words, it’s completely different in style from the haunting pictures of the poor Eastern European Jews that Vishniac is best known for—and was shooting around the same time. Vishniac’s well-honed Modernist sensibility is but one surprise in “Roman Vishniac Rediscovered,” a long-overdue and previously unimaginable exhibition opening at the ICP on January 18. Curated by Benton, it’s the first to look beyond the four years Vishniac was creating what turned out to be the final, comprehensive record of an extinguished community, and to examine in detail the full scope of his career.
The photographer, born in Leningrad in 1897, moved to Germany with his family in 1920, becoming an avid street photographer. Some of his earliest work, like this shot of a Berlin train station in the late ’20s or early ’30s, shows off a crisply Weimaresque sensibility.
Benton learned that Vishniac befriended the head zookeeper at the Berlin Zoo, receiving privileged access for photos like this shot, which makes it seem like the bears are the ones out of the cage. In the context of what came later, “it takes on a whole different meaning,” the curator says.
In a sense, says Benton, Vishniac’s career was overshadowed by his own mythologizing. He liked to say that his portraiture in Eastern Europe was a self-imposed assignment, when in fact it was work for hire for the Joint Distribution Committee, a Jewish charity that raises funds for humanitarian assistance. “The reality is so much more interesting,” Benton says, because the commission echoes the projects of socially committed American photographers like Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans. “Here’s a Jewish photographer doing in Eastern Europe what Americans are doing for the the Farm Security Administration,” she says. “The goal is to lobby for relief, affect immigration policy.”
This mission helps explain why the Jews pictured in Vishniac’s book A Vanished World and other anthologies of his work from that era look so forlorn, so vulnerable. Orthodox men, so much easier to identify than women because of their unique dress, appear often in Vishniac’s printed work; so do those tragic children, intended to pull on donors’ heartstrings.
Still, even in his Eastern European work Vishniac deployed an avant-garde sense of composition not often associated with his work, Benton points out. Such is the case of a photo of a boy with kindling in a basement dwelling on Krochmalna Street (which became the main street of the Warsaw Ghetto), with its strong verticals, and the almost Cubist touch of the Yiddish newspaper poking out on the right and playing off a white corner of lace in the window.
Benton knew that Vishniac photographed a wider spectrum of the Jewish community than his most iconic images imply. But the extent and diversity of his output only became clear as his archive—some 12,000 prints and color transparencies, along with about 12,000 negatives—began arriving at the ICP in late 2007 as part of an intended gift from the artist’s daughter, Mara.
Among those images, Benton discovered entire bodies of work that were unknown—including documentation of Jewish relief efforts in Germany before the war. An image of a boy in a Jewish soup kitchen in Berlin invites the eye to linger on jaunty angle of the hat and the texture of the blank wall. “The framing is modern,” notes Benton.
As the political situation darkened, the photographer posed his daughter, Mara, in front of symbols of the rising Nazi party, among them this political propaganda poster featuring Hitler and Paul von Hindenburg. Benton tracked down the poster and acquired it for the collection; it will be included in the exhibition.
Vishniac was arrested in 1940 in Paris and imprisoned for three months in a French internment camp. After his release, in 1940, he made his way via Portugal with his family to New York. (His negatives, which he had entrusted to a friend, Walter Bierer, took a longer journey—through Cuba—but were eventually returned to Vishniac during the war.)
In New York Vishniac worked for various Jewish agencies, documenting Jewish hospitals and nursing schools, orphanages, community centers, schools, summer camps, and more. As part of a (rejected) application to the Guggenheim Foundation for a grant to make a photographic portrait of America at war, he chronicled blood banks and other settings in Chinatown. None of this work has ever been shown.
Another previously unknown body of work: denizens of Café Society, New York’s first integrated nightclub.
Benton was astonished to find a record of Vishniac’s trip back to Germany in 1947, where he documented the destruction of Berlin, as well as Jews rebuilding their lives in DP camps.
Soon after he arrived in New York Vishniac opened a portrait studio, shooting the likes of Yiddish theater star Molly Picon, Marc Chagall, and Albert Einstein, among other Jewish luminaries and performers. This photo shows Emily Frankel and Mark Ryder, well-known dancers.
Vishniac had a lifelong love of science as a boy and turned his passion into a vocation from the ’50s until his death in 1990. One room in the exhibition will feature a slide show of about 100 examples of his color photomicroscopy, which appeared on the covers of journals like Omni, Science, and Nature. This work, says Benton, will be the subject of a major show at the ICP in the next few years.
Within a year, the entire archive will be available online, shared digitally with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Viewers will be able to upload comments, identification, and historical information, helping scholars to solve some of the mysteries that remain in those thousands of mute negatives. Then, a new era of Vishniac’s career can begin.