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Vanished no more: Giant of photography Roman Vishniac finds a home at The Magnes

Known primarily as a specialist of pre-World War II Jewish life, he also did breakthrough work in New York City street life, scientific studies. including microphotography and some celebrity photography as well

Albert Einstein by Roman Vishniac

This photo of Albert Einstein by Roman Vishniac was one that Einstein later called one of his favorites.

Naomi and Ben Schiff remember long walks with their grandfather on the streets of New York. Going to the park, going shopping, going to the library. Just going.

They remember his need to take his camera with them. It was a constant companion, an extra appendage. He’d take pictures of them in every pose every grandfather has ever subjected the grandkids to.

And now those pictures are coming to UC Berkeley to a permanent home in The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life as part of a large collection of prints, negatives, contact sheets, slides, and audio and video recordings. And the world of photographic art isn’t going to be the same. Not because Naomi and Ben weren’t adorable kids, but because their grandfather was Roman Vishniac.

A tour of some of the many facets of Roman Vishniac’s photography. (UC Berkeley video)

Vishniac didn’t just take pictures of the grandkids. He took pictures of everything. He lived from 1897-1990, and he took some of the most culturally and scientifically important photos of the 20th century. He almost single-handedly preserved our concepts of Jewish life in pre-World War II Eastern Europe. The most iconic of Vishniac’s photographs from the late 1930s are a testament to the lives being lived before the Holocaust erased so many of those same lives.

After the war, he would go on to photograph the results of the destruction and the first attempts at rebuilding Germany. He’d return to the United States to do work that documented life in the early days of the Baby Boom in New York, particularly another immigrant community, Chinatown. And he would spend decades working on processes for photomicroscopy, specializing in photos of insects, protozoa, amino acids, marine microbiology and plant metamorphosis. Devoted to his craft, Vishniac tinkered relentlessly, in the 1960s and 1970s inventing new methods for light-interruption photography and light colorization. His use of polarized light could penetrate some cells, enhancing the details of an image.

Roman Vishniac

Roman Vishniac, 1977 (Photo by Andrew J. Skolnick)

His entire photographic work is now coming to Berkeley from a 10-year stay at New York’s International Center of Photography. The ICP has launched a rebirth of interest of Vishniac’s work with a touring exhibition currently in London and then headed for Vienna, and in the 2015 book Roman Vishniac Rediscovered.

There are some 20 binders of contact sheets that Vishniac never had printed. They are coming west, along with about 6,500 photographic prints, including about 1,500 scientific prints. In addition, the bonanza includes about 10,000 negatives and 40 albums of slides. One of the first jobs of The Magnes will be to catalogue it all.

Francesco Spagnolo, the curator of The Magnes, says he is looking forward to the many narratives these materials will unleash at UC Berkeley and beyond.

“Vishniac was a man of many cultures,” Spagnolo says. “He applied a scientific gaze to humankind, especially its margins, and at the same time he had a wholly humanistic view of the scientific world.”

While he and his colleagues are understandably ecstatic at the treasure headed their way, there is a concurrent excitement about just what the complete catalogue of Vishniac will reveal. And, yes, there will be pictures of Naomi and Ben in there. And their mother, Mara. Their photos may be right next to portraits of Albert Einstein or Marc Chagall. The Einstein portrait is one the scientist later called his favorite. Or they could be right next to a photo of a soaring stork.

The collection is a gift of Vishniac’s daughter, Mara Vishniac Kohn, and her children, Naomi and Ben. And while the collection was on loan to the ICP, it is coming to the university and to The Magnes as an unrestricted gift. The Magnes will also now hold the copyright of the entirety of Vishniac’s oeuvre.

Mara Vishniac Kohn on why she wanted to have The Magnes at UC Berkeley become the home of Roman Vishniac’s photos.

“My goals for this collection are to keep the work alive, and also, in a way, keep the people from dying again,” Mara Vishniac Kohn says. “That means we don’t want them really hidden away in some archive that no one ever looks at. I had a feeling of having arrived at a new possibility when I first came to The Magnes and looked around and felt the spirit of the place.

“I see hope that these materials and all my father’s efforts will be somehow connected with our present life and, more importantly, with the lives of young people. Even though he had never shared the life that was shown in these photographs, he felt very connected and referred to the people as our family. I look forward to having the knowledge that these people are safe and to some extent alive and adding to our lives.”

The family’s goal is to make sure Roman Vishniac’s work, both on the streets of Europe and North America and in the scientific realm, are accessible to both scholars and the public.

The Stork

Storks were favorites subjects of Roman Vishniac and his camera.

There was no need to worry about the family name dying out. Vishniac’s book, The Vanished World, remains in wide circulation and Roman’s son, Wolf, a microbiologist who died on a research trip to the Antarctic, has the Vishniac crater on Mars named for him. The move of all things Vishniac to The Magnes is a pathway to open Roman’s work to the world.

“This is a collection of Jewish art and life, but not just that,” Ben Schiff, former chair of the politics department at Oberlin College, says. “We’ve felt that the proper place for this was in a university setting. Naomi and I, together with Mara, settled on UC and The Magnes as the best place for the study of all these photos.”

Ben and Naomi have a couple of things from their grandfather as keepsakes, and their mother has a few more. In making the donation of approximately 98 percent of Vishniac’s life work, the family wants the world to come to Berkeley for the opportunity to see how Roman Vishniac chronicled the world as he found it.

“The camera was an extension of our grandfather,” says Naomi Schiff, who like her brother lives in the East Bay. “He captured everyday life in what he did. It’s extremely visual, and the collection deserves to be seen by as wide an audience as possible. The Magnes does that. And the university’s scientists will have access to the thousands of scientific prints he made over the years.”

The university, for its part, is excited about the Vishniac collection landing in Berkeley for its cultural, historic and artistic value. Anthony J. Cascardi, dean of arts and humanities at Berkeley, says he sees the arrival, with the possibilities for studies and research, as a game-changer.

“It’s a wholly unique collection, and it’s unique in a number of ways,” Cascardi says. “The photographs Vishniac made in eastern Europe are of villages that were subsequently wiped off the face of the earth. The uncanniness of the timing of his photographs in relation to the annihilation of those communities is breathtaking.

“Photography does many different things. One is to memorialize. Without realizing he was doing it at the time, Vishniac has made records of peoples and cultures that are gone. These are works of great historical memory. They are also evidence of lives that could have been if history had gone in a different direction.”

Boy Reading by Roman Vishniac

“Boy Reading” was typical of Roman Vishniac, who often caught his subjects while they were engrossed in books.

Roman Vishniac was born in St. Petersburg, Russia,  in 1897 to a relatively prosperous family. That family was one of thousands shattered by the 1917 Russian Revolution, and they moved to Berlin, where Vishniac would meet them in 1920. By that time he’d married his Latvian fiancée and secured a Latvian passport that would enable him to move in ways most Russian Jews could not in eastern Europe.

His early interest was in zoology, but he also was an early advocate of photography, purchasing the first Leica and Rolleiflex cameras as they hit the market. Almost immediately Vishniac began producing images of street life in eastern Europe in the 1920s. At the same time, he merged the camera and the microscope and helped develop the emerging science of biological photography.

By 1934, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) commissioned him to roam eastern Europe recording the daily lives of the Jewish population. The images, taken as he journeyed across Poland, the Ukraine, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Hungary, Latvia and Lithuania thanks to his Latvian passport, would be part of a program designed to raise money and awareness of the rise of the Nazi party in Germany.

And it was the JDC that would help Vishniac escape to New York in 1940. He’d later estimate that he’d taken 16,000 photographs from 1934-39 but was able to leave Europe with just about 2,000 of them, some them sewed into his clothing for the trip to the United States. Many of the rest were left behind with his father.

He and his images made their first impact in 1947 when his book Polish Jews: A Pictorial Record was published. Later that same year The Forward Association, publisher of the Yiddish newspaper The Forward, included more than 150 of Vishniac’s photos along with those of other like-minded photographers in The Vanished World.

“It was just Polish street life,” John Efron, Koret Professor of Jewish History at UC Berkeley, says of Vishniac’s work from 1934-39. “No one knew what would happen, just that the situation was not good. There were 3.3 million Jews in Poland, most of whom still imagined that’s where their lives would play out. Still, the Holocaust was another order of magnitude. Anti-Semitism didn’t presage what would follow.

“He recorded life as it was. The pictures that he took showed that Polish Jewry was resilient. Having this here is special, because this is a focal point for the exploration of Jewish history. This enriches our offerings and out capabilities. This is the greatest photographic record of that community.”

For Aglaya Glevoba, who got her PH.D. at Berkeley in 2014 and now teaches history at UC Irvine, the move to Berkeley is a chance for Vishniac to be in the same grouping of 20th century photographers as Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange.

“He’s been pigeonholed as a photographer of Jewish art,” Glebova says. “And while that work is important, it’s not the only work he did. He started a revolution in microbiology. It’s time we consider the whole body of his work.”

For the last decade, the Vishniac collection had resided in New York’s International Center of Photography. ICP put together the traveling exhibition currently in London that is getting some rave reviews in The Guardian ( and The Telegraph (

A elder of the Village Vysn by Roman Vishniac

Roman Vishniac thought enough of this pre-1940 photo that it was on the cover of his 1983 book, A Vanished World.

Mark Lubell, executive director of the ICP, wants Vishniac’s work to reach as wide an audience as possible.

“The International Center of Photography is proud to be the home of a core collection of Vishniac images,” Lubell says. “The work, originally gifted to ICP by Mara Vishniac Kohn, was utilized in an ICP exhibit that originated in 2013 and continues to tour around the world today – one of the ways in which we continue to educate and engage people about Vishniac’s contributions to the world of photography.

“The establishment of the Vishniac archive at The Magnes offers another important step in preserving and perpetuating Vishniac’s valuable legacy, providing access and engagement at two important U.S. institutions, one on each coast.”

While the ICP will have 125 Vishniac photos and 51 other items, the vast bulk of the collection now calls Berkeley home.

“We mean this to be a living museum and archive, shaped through research and learning in partnership with our faculty and students,” Spagnolo, the curator, says. “Part of the plan is to include our colleagues in the sciences and have them explore the work he did, particularly with microbiology.

“The thing is, there is a lot in this collection that is not yet known. And that’s what is exciting for us. We only know that we’re going to have some surprises as we unpack and catalogue.”

Through it all, it seems that Berkeley and The Magnes are fated to become destination spots for scholars and researchers exploring both 20th century culture and 20th century science. In addition to the Vishniac work, just two years ago the collection of the artist and illustrator Arthur Szyk was acquired through an unprecedented gift by Taube Philanthropies.

And in terms of Jewish studies, Berkeley could well become one of the most important research spots in the country, including The Magnes, the Berkeley Center for Jewish Studies, and the Berkeley Institute for Jewish Law and Israel Studies.