Roman Vishniac Rediscovered

Roman Vishniac, a renowned photographer, was born in Russia in 1897 to a Jewish family. He is most known for his photographic representation of Jewish life and culture in Central and Eastern Europe before the Holocaust. He captured the growing oppression experienced daily by the Jewish population, their loss of rights as Nazism took over, their progressive exclusion from society as their businesses were boycotted and were banned from many public places. There’s a notion of time in his photographs, a visible evolution from an open society to a fascist one. A photograph taken in 1935 shows a woman turning in mid-step in a brightly lit street as if called by someone situated outside the frame. It is only upon closer inspection that one notices that tiny foreboding detail, a swastika flag hangs from a shop right on top of the horse on the left side of the photograph.

Through his sharp compositions and dramatic use of light and shade, Vishniac encapsulates this new harsh and uncompromising reality in his photographs. However, this unexpected yet impending doom impression that I get from some of his photographs is crafted, not just from the stark contrast between light and dark, but from the, sometimes, inaccurate captions. In a feature for the New York Times entitled A Closer Reading of Roman Vishniac, Alana Newhouse, editor-in-chief of Tablet, a magazine about Jewish life and culture, mentions the final spread in Vishniac’s collection of photographs taken between 1934 and 1939, A Vanished World. The photo of a man hiding behind a metal door, his wary face the only thing visible in the small square opening of the door, is put alongside that of a small child standing close to a wall, not completely hiding but not visibly out in the street, gesturing towards himself or something further down the street. Their presence next to one another adds meaning to these photos, it creates a story which is not explicitly there. Suddenly the little boy is no longer vaguely pointing at something, he is signalling something to his apparent father. The caption reads: “The father is hiding from the Endecy (members of the National Democratic Party). His son signals him that they are approaching. Warsaw, 1938.” The story written on this spread is poignant, intense and haunting. But, according to Newhouse, it didn’t happen. She writes: “The pictures in that spread, it turns out, came from different rolls of film, probably shot in different towns – which means, of course, that its characters were presumably not only unrelated but also most likely did not even know each other.”

Vishniac’s photographs tell stories which, despite being tweaked in some cases, either enlighten the reader on the truth about Jewish lives in that period, how they trained in hopes of being able to emigrate somewhere safe or put images on narratives and facts that the reader has already come across. It was written in an article, that he stays close to the truth, he captures it and exposes it. That makes his work seem very objective, like an analytical piece of work on how society worked at that time. Whether or not his intention was to be as objective as possible and showcase the truth and only the truth isn’t really that important in the end. What is is the way the reader reacts to it. These photographs, their lighting and the way the framing emphasises certain things, prompt negative reactions-anger, sadness, outrage, disbelief-, and empathy laced with curiosity for a time that we’ll never fully understand.

In the 1950s and 60s, Vishniac returned to science and biology. From this, he produced rich and colourful images that are abstract and unexpected, beautiful and yet repulsive at times.

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