January 30, 2013 6:54 pm

Roman Vishniac Rediscovered, ICP, New York

A revelatory show shines new light on a photographer known above all for his images of doomed shtetl life
Visniac

In the published version of Roman Vishniac’s famous photograph, a Yeshiva boy turns towards some distant vision, his tender smile and bright eyes framed by dangling ear locks and a dark, broad-brimmed hat. The luminous portrait was shot in the late 1930s, in the small eastern European city of Mukachevo, whose entire Jewish population was later deported to Auschwitz. That photo, which graced the cover of To Give Them Light: The Legacy of Roman Vishniac, immortalised European Jewry in a style that mixed anguish with nostalgia.

So the original of that picture, now part of the International Center of Photography’s marvellous Vishniac retrospective, comes as a revelation. In the uncropped version, the impish hero is wedged in a crowd of noisy, toothy kids. His smile isn’t abstract or prophetic; it’s a reaction to an older boy who has just grabbed him by the arm. In the foreground, slightly out of focus, another joyful sprite is mugging for a photographer who has no interest in normal, boisterous joy. Although Vishniac edited the image to amplify the heart-tugging plight of the European Hasidic community, his negative is moving in a different way. It takes in a fuller panorama of Jewish childhood before the war: the everyday exuberance of a complex society on the verge of cataclysm.

The theme of selective cropping applies to Vishniac himself. A Vanished World, his phenomenally influential paean to shtetl life published in 1983, turned scenes of pre-Holocaust Jewry into a vivid tableau: cinematographer Janusz Kaminski credited him with inspiring the Oscar-winning look of Schindler’s List. But the spectacularly informative show that Maya Benton has curated, using archives that the ICP recently acquired, tells a much thornier tale. Vishniac served as camera for hire, and he could switch styles at a click of the shutter. He was, by turns, a new-vision modernist, a Walker Evans-style documentarian, a sentimentalist, a clear-eyed journalist, a celebrity portraitist and a specialist in photo-microscopy.

Born in 1897, the son of a Russian umbrella tycoon, Vishniac grew up in Moscow, studied zoology and biology and even became a doctor before the Revolution forced his family to flee. In 1920, they alighted in Berlin, where his father tried, unsuccessfully, to set him up in business. Vishniac reluctantly agreed to manage a family-owned apartment building, which left him ample time to indulge his passion for photography. He cast an artist’s eye upon the city’s electric bustle, filtering window cleaners, train stations and streetcar drivers through devices designed to make them strange and new. He fixated on form, zooming towards a close-up of a horse’s face or careering back to capture abstract dances of urban light and shadow.

In the 1930s, Vishniac shouldered a more sober purpose, using his lens to track the infiltrations of Nazi propaganda. He posed his seven-year-old daughter in front of a shop that sold instruments for measuring the difference between Aryan and non-Aryan skulls. Another shot takes in a gaggle of kids playing in the street while, far in the background, swastika banners flutter from the building’s roofs. Nazi ideology had become an almost invisible part of the landscape, obvious only to those it excluded.

Vishniac, who died in 1990, spun a compelling self-mythology about these years, veiling his trajectory even as he boasted about it. In a New Yorker profile from 1955, he claimed that a prescient sense of doom launched him on his photographic journeys around eastern Europe, leading him to cover 5,000 miles in four years. “My friends assured me that Hitler’s talk was sheer bombast,” he said, “but I replied that he would not hesitate to exterminate those people when he got around to it. And who was there to defend them? I knew I could be of little help, but I decided that, as a Jew, it was my duty to my ancestors, who grew up among the very people who were being threatened, to preserve – in pictures, at least – a world that might soon cease to exist.”

Actually, it was the Joint Distribution Committee, a Jewish relief organisation, that dispatched him to record the most impoverished, vulnerable – and identifiably religious – elements of Jewish life, in order to drum up humanitarian assistance. Vishniac simply took the job.

Some of what he captured on film, but never published, betrays an extremely sophisticated eye. Take, for instance, the exhausted Polish porter asleep in his cart. His muscular body, swaddled in a plaid shirt, a too-small knitted woollen vest, woollen trousers and a makeshift belt, diagonally bisects the frame. The riot of textures, the odd angle, the visual rhyming of the vehicle’s wheel with the round barrel by the man’s head – all seem more appropriate to an avant-garde statement than to a charity flyer. Another “Carrier of Heavy Loads”, muscles etched in the sunlight, confronts the photographer squarely and with severe detachment. He could be one of August Sander’s proud “People of the 20th Century”.

Kristallnacht forced Vishniac from Berlin to Paris and then, after a three-month internment at a prison camp, to Lisbon and New York, where he arrived with his wife and children on New Year’s Day, 1941. The war years proved difficult, as he struggled to find work in yet another adopted city. He tried his hand at studio portraiture and even managed to snag such prominent expats as Marc Chagall and Alfred Einstein as subjects. He finally found his niche, though, in photo-microscopy, recording the wonder of organisms too small to be seen with the naked eye. The ICP has a slideshow of these remarkable studies that flare on the screen with an almost extraterrestrial gleam.

Hunched over his microscope, Vishniac never lost his sense of kinship with other living things. He worried about the microbes living in a sample of pond water he had taken from Central Park. “It is no laughing matter,” he told the New Yorker. “Don’t you have a home and a family? How would you feel if you were taken from them and carried to a strange land where living conditions were entirely different and where you knew no one? Just because protozoa are so small, it does not follow that they have no rights.” If there was one thing a sensitive Jewish émigré could understand, it was the plight of the forcibly displaced.

Until May 5, www.icp.org

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