Developing Vishniac

by articulatenyc

A sampling of photographs from the Roman Vishniac archive at the ICP in New York. The central print, Granddaughter and Grandfather, Warsaw, 1938, is one of Vishniac’s most recognizable images.

Born in Russia in 1897, Roman Vishniac was best known for his published photographs of Jewish daily life in Eastern Europe on the brink of World War II. Little was known about the origin of those images during Vishniac’s lifetime though—he often made false claims regarding his motivation for taking the photos and wrote incorrect annotations on many of his prints. In 2009, however, the complete archive of the photographer’s work was combined into one comprehensive collection—now housed at the ICP’s Vishniac Archive—which has allowed for extensive research on Vishniac’s life to take place, revealing the true nature of his work.

Interestingly enough, by disproving his original annotations and claims, Vishniac’s place and value in the history of photography have not been diminished, but rather, enhanced. Maya Benton, curator of the Vishniac Archive, and her team have used the collection—which is comprised of tens of thousands of prints, thousands of negatives, as well as notes and correspondence from the photographer himself—to establish Vishniac as one of the most influential social documentary photographers of the 20th century.

In addition to his published photographs and many of their negatives, Ms. Benton now has access to Vishniac’s never-before-seen works such as pre-war photos taken on the streets of Berlin in the 1920s and ’30s, and the images he took of displaced person camps and postwar destruction when he returned to Eastern Europe in 1947. The archive also includes Vishniac’s photographs of secular and cosmopolitan life in Warsaw and Krakow, Poland, the rise of the Nazi regime, and his documentation of Jewish life in America in the ’40s and ’50s. As Benton said, the archives serve as “the final photographic record of a world that no longer exists.” The study of these archives therefore re-establishes Vishniac’s place in the photographic canon, and most notably, enhances our understanding of Jewish history in Europe and the United States.

The ICP will present an exhibition of Roman Vishniac’s work in January 2013.