Saturday, 1 December 2007

Profile: Roman Vishniac

The Only Flowers of her Youth, Warsaw, 1938

Roman Vishniac's work is a new discovery for me. I came across his work after buying a secondhand book from a car boot sale containing articles written by various photographers. One photographer called Peter Korniss (the final featured photographer in this series of posts) had photographed a Hungarian community during the early 1970's whose culture and traditions had remained untouched for hundreds of years. One of the photographers that Korniss mentioned in his article was Roman Vishniac.

Roman Vishniac was born just outside of St Petersburg, Russia in 1897 into a wealthy family who manufactured umbrellas. The Russian revolution saw the Vishniac family move to Germany to escape the growing anti-semitism that was sweeping Europe in the early part of the 20th century. It was during this turbulent time in his life that Vishniac took up photography. As well as the documentary work that he did, Roman Vishniac worked heavily in the field of Photomicroscopy for which he gained many accolades, winning the best of show at the Biological Photographic Association in three consecutive years from 1952 onwards.

From around 1935 to 1938 Vishniac photographed the Jews of eastern Europe creating over 16,000 images ranging from portraits to urban landscapes. Initially he had been commissioned by an American Jewish committee but Vishniac had quite a personal interest in the project. Vishniac and his family lived in Germany and witnessed first hand the rise of Nazism. He realised that the world of the eastern Jew was to be eradicated by a growing threat that many still failed to recognise. The work he created during this period was released as a book called 'A Vanished World'. Vishniac later commented " I knew it was my task to make certain that this vanished world did not totally disappear". The images would document a way of life that had remained unaltered for hundreds of years until the arrival of the SS at the beginning of the war.

The task of recording the eastern Jews would have been immense and the knowledge that this world was marked for annihilation would also weigh heavy on the mind. Most photographers would love to get an exclusive world to photograph. You would be taking groundbreaking images of a people or place that are unique and when you add the fact that only you will capture it before its destruction, the pressure to do a complete and thorough job grows. In many respects Roman Vishniac and Edward S Curtis were on similar territory. Both realised that they had little time to capture what was left of a society and culture in decline they were viewing through the viewfinder. The main difference between Vishniac and Curtis was time - Curtis had thirty years to complete the work, Vishniac had substantially less.

What makes this project really remarkable is that Roman Vishniac took many of his images secretly to avoid trouble with the authorities and locals. He often traveled around disguised as a fabric merchant and carried the camera ( he used a Leica and a Rolleiflex) under his coat or under a scarf. The photographs do have that candid feel which adds to the quality of the work - this WAS the world he had entered to capture. Cameras alter the way that people behave - remove the camera's influence and a more natural look is captured in the faces and actions of the subjects. They are themselves.

Vishniac left Germany in 1939 and eventually emigrated for America the following year where he continued to work as a documentary and scientific photographer. He also taught the philosophy of photography at an institute in New York City. Roman Vishniac died on January 22nd 1990 but his photographic legacy remains visible in his documentary and scientific work. Some have criticised his Eastern work as being technically flawed and amateurish. I think that the criticism is flawed and the work is of the highest value as a historical record. He was working against the authorities and in many cases, the very people he was photographing, hence his need for taking images covertly but Vishniac knew he had to take the images. For him it was an absolute necessity to photograph these people and their doomed world. This work remains their legacy as much as Roman Vishniac's.


The international Center for Photography/Roman Vishniac

Images: All images by Roman Vishniac

Top - Since the basement had no heat, Sara had to stay in bed all winter. Her father painted the flowers for her, the only flowers of her childhood. Warsaw, ca. 1935-38

Left top - Berlin, 1922 by Roman Vishniac.

Right top - Isaac Street, Kazimierz, Cracow, ca. 1935-38

Left middle - Old Man. ca 1935-38

Right bottom - Apples for sale on the Gesia Ulica, one of the main streets in the Jewish quarter of Warsaw, ca. 1935-38

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