As They Live: On Roman Vishniac

As They Live: On Roman Vishniac

How a photographer’s images of Jews were liberated from the lachrymose history he imposed upon them.


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."

Vishniac's commentaries can be mortifying to read, equally loud in lament and self-satisfaction. About a picture of two people who may or may not be grandfather and granddaughter, Vishniac wrote:

After the war, I heard about this family from a survivor. The grandfather died when he was seized by the Nazis, the granddaughter was shipped to a camp where she was raped and later gassed. An ordinary story. But this picture and its story will remain when I am gone. 

A stoic who dared only imply the force of his grief, like Primo Levi, Vishniac was not. Nor was he totally honest: the Times Magazine article, by Alana Newhouse, revealed the falsehood of two important claims that Vishniac had made in A Vanished World and elsewhere: that he undertook the expeditions on his own initiative, on an "assignment from God," and that he used a hidden camera operating through a buttonhole in his coat or concealed in a valise. (In the late 1930s, Walker Evans and Helen Levitt used similar techniques to take photos of unsuspecting straphangers in the New York City subway.) As the curator Maya Benton discovered when she started sorting through his archive in the early 2000s, Vishniac had been hired by the Joint Distribution Committee to produce images of vulnerable Jewish communities in Europe. This work would be used to raise awareness and money to help relieve the anti-Semitic boycotts that were embraced in parts of Europe well before the war. Benton's close study of the pictures also prompted her to question Vishniac's claim about the hidden camera: in several images she could see Vishniac himself, holding his camera, reflected in the eyes of his subjects. Perhaps in being less than honest about this, he was trying to italicize the difference between the world lost in the Holocaust (banning "graven images" more often than was the case) and the snap-happy postwar reality of his viewers.

Benton curated the ICP exhibition, which lays out methodically the turns in Vishniac's career and takes care at each juncture to describe parallels between his work in the 1930s and that of American photographers documenting the Depression for the Farm Security Administration. The analogy feels natural to Vishniac's combination of relaxed street scenes and plaintive close-ups of individuals: of the spontaneous and the orchestrated, in other words. In the more deliberate portraits—for instance, the famous shot of Sara, a beautiful, woeful child under a duvet who "had to stay in bed all winter" for lack of heating at home—the photo's polemical motive is quite legible in its composition. These are informative shots for posters and magazines in New York and Paris. 

Vishniac's talent for delivering persuasive images flourished during a trip he took to the Netherlands to document, again for the Joint Distribution Committee, a camp dedicated to preparing young people for emigration to Palestine. These pictures make their debut at the ICP. Here, Vishniac shot frequently from low angles to render his subjects in heroic proportions: they almost always smile into the middle distance, shoulders squared, and the geometrically charged group portraits of young men building houses represent Vishniac's finest homage to modernism. It grants these slightly pushy photographs more dignity, and far more interest, if their documentary roots are understood. Vishniac died in 1990, and it remains a mystery why he was never open about the basis of his journeys to these faraway places. The odd spectacle at the heart of this show reveals him to be a formally versatile documentarian bravely engaged with a central injustice of the twentieth century, who insisted on wearing the robes of a prophetic ethnographer.

Born in Russia in 1897 to a prosperous Jewish family, Vishniac stayed in Moscow just long enough after the Revolution to complete his studies in biology and medicine. In 1920, he fled to Berlin, where he and his first wife, Luta, raised their two children. He knew what the rise of Nazism meant: in two photographs from 1933, his 7-year-old daughter, looking shy and uncomfortable in a gigantic coat, serves as a pretext for the real object of her father's interest: Nazi propaganda in the shop windows behind her. In one picture, she's dwarfed by a mannequin head strapped to a sort of halo machine—something straight out of Metropolis—for measuring the difference between Aryan and Jewish skulls. 

Perhaps the biggest surprise at the ICP are Vishniac's street photographs of Weimar Berlin; there are only a handful, but they have the wit and economy of Henri Cartier-Bresson. Out in the city, Vishniac harnessed the dynamism of striding legs: inverted V's invade every shot, eating up sidewalks, and in one winning image, strangers trudge past one another like the crowd on London Bridge in The Waste Land, not noticing the massive sign overhead in the shape of a chimney sweep (for a gambling parlor), who seems to be taking his own giant step from a third-floor window straight into the sky. Another picture that magnetized visitors at the ICP shows the Berlin zoo photographed from a high point inside the polar bears' cage, looking down on the big gumdrop animals and out at the Berliners who appear to be the ones behind bars. Visual puns both, but ones that linger in the mind, being composed with great elegance, and mingling sweetness with dark intimations about human nature.

About a decade after many of these pictures were taken, Vishniac began making his sorties to the shtetls east of Berlin. By 1939, his children had been sent to Sweden for safety, and the following year he found himself arrested in France. A few months later, he was freed (thanks, it seems, to the efforts of Luta), and the family sailed to New York. In the United States, he took up commercial portraiture and applied for a Guggenheim fellowhip (which he never received) for a series of photographs "portraying the face of America at war." By the 1950s, he had returned to his day job: biologist and photographer 
of microscopic organisms. 

At the ICP, a darkened room is dedicated to the projections of these colorful slides, forming a curious pendant to the rest of Vishniac's work. In 1955, his microphotographs earned him a two-part profile in The New Yorker that painted him as a brilliant, lovable oddball, like an uncle from You Can't Take It With You who strayed off the set one day and got lost in the real world. A decade after the war, Vishniac apparently had no desire to discuss any of it:

Three times in the course of finding his way here from his native land, Vishniac barely eluded dictatorial regimes that were out to get him, escaping first from Russia, then from Germany, and finally from Nazi-
dominated France, but he regards these adventures as rather tepid compared to a photomicrographic study he made in 1950 of the amoeba, the amorphous unicellular protozoan whose seemingly blind gropings have….

History and its cataclysms take many years to be absorbed. Now that we have a wider angle on the variety of styles and moods in Vishniac's archive, the charm of what might be called his undogmatic documentary stands out. A number of his street photographs have a formal magnificence—two men are about to cross paths at the corner of a building, and sunlight raking in from the right performs an allegory, lighting up the more prosperous man in mid-stride and sinking the thinner one in shadow—but others are remarkable for their willingness to let a crowd take over the frame. To appreciate this, it's helpful to have a copy of Alter Kacyzne's Poyln: Jewish Life in the Old Country (1999) nearby while flipping through A Vanished World. Kacyzne was a photographer as well as a literary figure in Yiddish Warsaw, and in the 1920s he was commissioned by the New York magazine Forverts to capture scenes of "the old country."

Kacyzne's images glow with calm, not having shaken off the influence of Pictorialism: in one shot, little boys in a cheder stare sweetly into the camera, chins on open notebooks. His luminously lit portraits of men and women at their various occupations grant them a dignity that anticipates August Sander's quiet portraits of "Persecuted Jews." When it came to street photography, Vishniac could get closer to the meaning of a place—or to the way we'd prefer to remember it following its destruction. Both he and Kacyzne photographed Nalewki Street in Warsaw's Jewish quarter, but only Vishniac's Nalewki is jammed full of people, the pairings and clusters in conversation clear to see, and every window over the narrow, shop-lined street thrusts out its panes. Kacyzne's shot of Nalewki Street was probably taken early in the morning: it is an architectural study captured from a high vantage, recalling the serene tones of Atget. Vishniac caught the place as it lived.

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