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​Robynne Limoges / London Comments The 3NinesArts

The Photographer's Gallery and The Jewish Museum London 26 October 2018 - 24 February 2019
Note: All works © Mara Vishniac Kohn (Estate of Roman Vishniac) 
“Interior of the Anhalter Bahnhof railway terminus near Potsdamer Platz, Berlin” ©Roman Vishniac

I could not let the year ring out without strongly recommending to anyone who has not yet seen his first UK retrospective to take a long, leisurely look at the outstanding and historically vital documentary work of Roman Vishniac (1897-1990). How regrettable that a UK retrospective did not happen during his lifetime.

Vishniac is best known for his photographs of Jewish life in Eastern Europe between WWI and WWII. He was raised in Moscow (birthplace, Pavlovsk, Russia) and, following the Bolshevik Revolution, immigrated to Berlin in 1920, the touchstone of an era in which Berlin was at a stage of cultural experimentation and internationalism in which photography flourished. 

His oeuvre includes powerful and touching (and also unsettling - such as the ambiguous narrative in "Jewish School Children, Mukachevo", c. 1935-38) portraiture, some constructivist compositions, the psychological use of light and shadow to depict not only drama but possibly to allude to the increasing isolation of the Jewish population, such as in "Interior of the Anhalter Bahnhof railway terminus near Potsdamer Platz, Berlin", taken in 1929-early 1930s. 

By late 1929 his works also embody the inherent threat of the rise of Nazism. His courage and determination to document social and political realities is evident in Vishniac's portrait of his daughter, Mara, standing in front of an election poster for Hindenburg and Hitler. The poster reads, "The Marshall and the Corporal: Fight With Us for Peace and Equal Rights". It was taken in Wilmersdorf, Berlin, in 1933.

By the turn of the decade, Vishniac made social and political documentation his primary subject. His dedication to the subject brought his work to the attention of political groups around the world. In 1935 he was commissioned by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to photograph impoverished Jewish communities in Eastern Europe. The Committee believed that the power of his photographs would assist them in raising awareness of and gaining support for the Jewish population and his images were used in fundraising campaigns for the American donor audience. One of the most powerful, with or without its historical and political context, is "Sara, sitting in bed in a basement dwelling, with stencilled flowers above her head", Warsaw, c. 1935-37.

It is his portraiture, whether found on the street, groups crowded together for one reason or another, single faces, that remain the most directly moving of his work. His portrait of a young boy standing next to a stack of tinder wood, possibly cleaning his teeth with a wood splinter encapsulates so poignantly youth caught up the web of political and social catastrophe.

In 1955, Edward Steichen featured several of Vishniac's photographs in the exhibition The Family of Man shown at the Museum of Modern Art. Steichen later described the importance of Vishniac's work. ''[He]…gives a last- minute look at the human beings he photographed just before the fury of Nazi brutality exterminated them. The resulting photographs are among photography's finest documents of a time and place." (The Photographer's Gallery)

It is perhaps particularly fitting at this time of year to celebrate this retrospective for the very fact that Vishniac left Europe in 1940, and he arrived with his family in New York on New Year's Day, 1941. 

In America, he continued to record WWII's impact on humanity throughout 1940-50s, focusing especially on the arrival of Jewish refugees and Holocaust survivors in the United States, but also Chinese American immigrant communities. He established himself as a portrait photographer and resumed his interest in Photomicroscopy, which became his passion for the last 45 years of his life. "...He was appointed Professor of Biology and Art at several universities and his groundbreaking images and scientific research were published in hundreds of magazines and books." (The Photographers' Gallery)

Boy standing next to a stack of tinder Wood, ©Roman Vishniac

The Photographers' Gallery

16-18 Ramillies Street

London W1F 7LW

Mon-Sat 10am - 6pm

Thurs 10am - 8pm

Sun 11am - 6pm

Jewish Museum London

Raymond Burton House

129-131 Albert Street

London NW1 7NB

Daily 10am - 5pm

Friday 10am - 2pm* (*Shabbat Shalom!)

Closed 25, 26 December, 1 January

Portrait of an old man, ©Roman Vishniac
Young Woman and Old Man, ©Roman Vishniac
“Interior of the Anhalter Bahnhof railway terminus near Potsdamer Platz, Berlin”, taken in 1929-early 1930s,
Sara, sitting in bed in a basement dwelling, with stencilled flowers above her head”, Warsaw, c. 1935-37, ©Roman
Jewish School Children, Mukachevo”, c. 1935-38, ©Roman Vishniac
Josef Sudek, le fantasque « clochard céleste »
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