For the past thirty years, Roman Vishniac has been known best as the author of A Vanished World, his 1983 selection of photographs taken just before World War II in the shtetls and Jewish ghettos of Poland, Ukraine and Slovakia. It's hard to think of a body of images to which Roland Barthes's famous dictum more aptly applies: "Whether or not the subject is already dead, every photograph is this catastrophe." For thirty years, the Holocaust has loomed like a dark transparency over Vishniac's images, deepening the poignancy of his portraits and filling the viewer of his street scenes with fresh disbelief that entire communities, such as these still grubby with trade and banter in 1937 and 1938, could be erased.
It is no coincidence that A Vanished World was published in the early 1980s, when the Holocaust was moving into the center of historical studies of World War II and gaining significance as a factor of Jewish identity. The book was conceived as elegy at a time when seeing the pictures as anything else would have felt morally intolerable. Yet as "Roman Vishniac Rediscovered," a surprisingly diverse exhibition at the International Center of Photography in New York City (ending May 5) shows, we might be ready to approach Vishniac's work with fresh eyes. If, for instance, you had a foreign edition of A Vanished World and couldn't read Vishniac's grim captions and commentaries ("Because of the boycott of Jewish merchants, this storekeeper could not pay his rent, and so the landlord locked him out," etc.), the veracity of which has since been called into question, you might conclude that the book was simply a celebration of the variety of urban, rural, religious, commercial and domestic life in Jewish Europe many years ago.
The pictures show much poverty and desperation—families crammed into cellars; dazed-looking children, their faces smudged; keeling fences and ancient shoes—but also lots of ordinary experience: a robust shopkeeper who faces the camera with a smile, his hands thrust in his pockets; two old men paused on the sidewalk, talking over each other, one balancing a chair on his shoulders. In a good number of pictures, the people we see look pleased or amused.
In the images that reveal hardship, the facts of poverty keep transforming, as we look, into symbols of the massacres to come—and, of course, the prewar discrimination that caused the poverty is not unrelated to the Holocaust. But are such elisions fair to the people in these pictures, who are not yet at Auschwitz, and who are not simply victims? The photographs are more disinterested than our need for memorials. Despite the halo of mourning that flares around A Vanished World (and by extension the more carefully organized posthumous volume, To Give Them Light), an unprejudiced eye can have trouble locating a single emotional tone amid what the pictures actually show, which is the immediacy and constant movement of daily existence—with little novelistic foreshadowing of what lay some years in the future.
T he ICP show, which is drawn from Vishniac's previously untapped archive and is expected to be the basis of a more complete catalog of his work to appear a year from now, performs the service of restoring his subjects to their own time—liberating them from the lachrymose history imposed on them for decades. Divorcing the images from Vishniac's texts was the first step of this effort. Michael di Capua, who edited A Vanished World in the early 1980s, told The New York Times Magazine a few years ago: "In the course of many hours working with Vishniac, it began to seem that he had become a mythmaker of his past—telling stories that were better than what really happened."