Life in acute focus

TOM KING recommends two outstanding exhibitions of
Roman Vishniac’s documentary photographs

Roman Vishniac
Jewish Museum and Photographers’ Gallery, London

YOU would
struggle to find a more comprehensive study of Jewish life in the 20th century
than that carried out by Roman Vishniac, whose extraordinary body of work is
currently on show at both the Photographers’ Gallery and the Jewish Museum in

 Roman Vishniac )

dancer entertaining servicemen and other patrons while balancing a glass on her
head, Leon & Eddie’s, 52nd Street, New York, 1945 (Pic: Roman Vishniac

 Roman Vishniac)

soldiers marching next to the Arsenal in front of the Berlin Cathedral, ca. 1935
(Pic: Roman Vishniac)

Born in St
Petersburg and raised in Moscow, the young Vishniac and his family eventually
settled in 1930s Berlin where, amid growing hostility towards Jews, he
documented their everyday lives in astonishing detail.

His work soon
led to a commission by a US-based Jewish relief organisation and Vishniac
travelled to eastern Europe to photograph the plight of its Jewish populations
in an effort to raise awareness and much-needed funds.

The results —
a little girl sitting alone in bed in a Warsaw basement, left daily by both
parents in their desperate quest for work being one example — evoke a singular

 Roman Vishniac)

food in a Jewish soup kitchen, Berlin, mid- to late 1930s (Pic: Roman

 Roman Vishniac)

standing on a mountain of rubble, Berlin, 1947 (Pic: Roman

Back in
Berlin, Vishniac documented the gradual asphyxiation of that bohemian capital by
fascism’s iron fist. Partly through necessity but also, one likes to think, in
deference to his art, the photographs of marching soldiers, swastika banners and
phrenology shops form part of a wider survey of street life, giving them an
aesthetic quality which augments their chilling content.

To avoid
arousing suspicion, Vishniac employed some ingenious methods to record the
consolidation of Hitler’s power. Placing his daughter in front of a huge
election poster for Hindenburg and Hitler he was able to use her as a decoy
subject, the image becoming all the more sinister as a result.

With mounting
animosity towards Jews in Europe leading to a growing zionist movement, Vishniac
travelled to an agrarian youth training complex in the Netherlands where Jewish
refugees were taught farming, animal husbandry, construction and other skills
they would need to build new lives in Palestine and other countries.

 Roman Vishniac)

of Nat Gutman, a porter, Warsaw, ca. 1935-38 (Pic: Roman

 Roman Vishniac)

girls wearing klederdracht (traditional costumes), Marken, The Netherlands, 1939
(Pic: Roman Vishniac)

mid-toil with Stakhanovite industriousness, Vishniac portrayed his subjects as
“heroic zionist pioneers.” Contrasting the optimism of these young people
preparing for a peaceful future in Israel with the grim realities of its violent
present lends the images a powerful melancholy.

As Europe was
consumed by conflict, Vishniac fled to New York with his family and there his
evident passion for street photography was given free rein in that vibrant,
hectic metropolis. Then, returning to the rubble and decimation of Berlin
shortly after the war, he recorded the end of a story whose beginning he’d
witnessed so many years before.

But the
future was evidently as important to him as the past. His keen interest in
science saw him produce some state-of-the-art biological studies with the aid of
a microscope as well as a number of educational films. Add to that his portraits
of celebrities, including Albert Einstein, and you begin to see Vishniac as a
photographer of boundless versatility.

 Roman Vishniac)

youth building a school and foundry while learning construction techniques,
Werkdorp Nieuwesluis, Wieringermeer, The Netherlands, 1938–39 (Pic: Roman

 Roman Vishniac)

Europe, ca. 1935–38 (Pic: Roman Vishniac)

His work,
whatever the subject, is done with immense care. He knew the power of images and
his hold our attention to this day.

Vishniac Rediscovered runs simultaneously at the Jewish Museum and the
Photographers’ Gallery until February 24, details: and