WHAT: “Roman Vishniac: Rediscovered”
WHEN: January 18 – May 5, 2013
WHERE: International Center of Photography, 1133 Avenue of the Americas at 43rd Street, New York
WHY THIS SHOW MATTERS: Revered 20th-century photographer Roman Vishniac’s iconic imagery of pre-WWII Jewish day-to-day life in Germany and Eastern Europe is being seen under new light at the International Center of Photography’s current exhibition, “Roman Vishniac: Rediscovered.” The show’s organizer, ICP adjunct curator Maya Benton, has procured never-before-seen artwork by the photographer, including vintage images and film footage, which are presented alongside personal correspondence and new prints made from digital negatives. Together, these paint the most complete portrait of the prolific photographer, historian, and biologist’s oeuvre that has ever been showcased publicly.
Vishniac first became well known when the compendium of his 1930s documentary work, “A Vanished World” — which showcased Jewish daily life in the years leading up to the Holocaust — was published in 1983. However, this work (produced between 1935 and 1938) was actually commissioned by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, a relief organization, in an effort to draw attention to Jewish poverty in Germany and areas to the East. The new context provided by previously unseen work, new background information about already iconic photographs, and the revelation of his commission from the JDC provides important insight for Vishniac’s original motivation to photograph deprived subjects within their ethnic enclaves.
The exhibition also highlights lesser-known bodies of work from the artist’s time later spent living in New York, as well as a period spent documenting survivors in Europe after the war. Vishniac dedicated himself to documenting Jewish immigrant life in New York during the 1940s, as well photographing notable Jewish intellectuals and artists in his portrait studio, including Albert Einstein, Emily Frankel, and Mark Ryder. He also developed a mastery of studio techniques, including color microphotoscopy — created in conjunction with his work as a biologist — while also capturing a wide range of candid snapshots of New York City’s urban subjects. Presented alongside the revisited images from “A Vanished World,” the exhibition casts a new view upon a career that, if significant for its early historical capture, extended through a wide breadth of subjects and technical mastery outside of the shtetls.