Roman Vishniac was a Jewish photographer who was born in Russian and died in New York in 1990, aged 92. The International Center for Photography in New York recently became the repository of the Vishniac archive of some 30,000 objects: negatives, prints, film footage, memorabilia and correspondence.
This trove has resulted in a well-deserved retrospective at the ICP, and has stimulated new research into his work and life. The scope of his photographic accomplishments has proven to be even greater than was previously thought - the show of photographs and objects has been widely praised as magnificent and revelatory.
Vishniac fled Russia after the Bolshevik revolution and settled in Berlin, where he studied to be a biologist. Nazi restrictions on Jews prevented him from completing his scientific education, so from 1935 to 1938 he traveled on assignment for a Jewish relief organization as a photographer, documenting the lives of poor Jews in eastern Europe. The charity sought photographic evidence of desperate need, hoping this would help raise money for these doomed villages. Instead, these images became a rare record of an extinguished way of life.
In 1940 Vishniac, his wife and their two children arrived in New York and settled on the Upper West Side, where he opened a photo studio. His subjects ranged widely from portraits of Marc Chagall to images of a single pine needle. Eventually his haunting, beautiful photographs of Eastern Europe were published as a book, “A Vanished World”, in 1983. These images are well represented in the retrospective, as are many images never before seen, including his photos of a thriving Nazi-era Berlin, images of happier Jewish communities in the Netherlands, and photos of the Jews who survived the war.
The exemplary Travel and history blog Poemas del rio Wang recently posted an appreciation of Vishniac.
The show "Roman Vishniac Rediscovered" is on view at the International Centre for Photography until May 5th 2013.