Listen to Berkeley Talks episode #141: ‘Scholars on Roman Vishniac’s photos of Jewish life before WWII.’
Intro: This is Berkeley Talks, a Berkeley News podcast from the Office of Communications and Public Affairs that features lectures and conversations at UC Berkeley. You can subscribe on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. New episodes come out every other Friday.
John Efron: Okay, good afternoon and welcome back, everyone. I hope you had a good lunch and a good break. Now, we’re going to move on to our second panel of the day on Roman Vishniac and his work specifically. We’ve looked at the context so far of the places that Vishniac worked in, the Weimar Republic and the Polish Republic in the interwar period. And now we turn to a discussion of the work itself, far more closely.
And in so doing, the honor falls to me to introduce our moderator, who will then in turn introduce our speakers. And our moderator for this particular session is Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, who is professor emerita at New York University and the Ronald S. Lauder chief curator of the core exhibit at the POLIN Museum of the History of the Polish Jews in Warsaw.
Among her many publications, I will just point to her book, Image Before My Eyes: a Photographic History of Jewish Life in Poland, 1864 to 1939, that she did with Lucjan Dobroszycki, who many of us remember very fondly; They Called Me Mayer July: Painted Memories of a Jewish Childhood in Poland before the Holocaust, with Mayer Kirshenblatt, who painted those wonderful images; and Anne Frank Unbound: Media, Imagination, Memory that she did with Jeffrey Shandler, who is one of our speakers in this forthcoming session.
Professor Kirshenblatt-Gimblett was awarded in 2021 a lifetime achievement award from the American Folklore Society. She was also honored for lifetime achievement by the Foundation for Jewish Culture. And I think somewhat unusually for an active academic has received honorary doctorates from JTS and University of Haifa and Indiana University, and the 2015 Marshall Sklare Award for her contribution to the social scientific study of jury. And she was also decorated with the Officer’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland.
She’s been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and has been awarded the Dan David Prize. She serves on the advisory boards of YIVO, the council of American Jewish museums, the Jewish Museum of Vienna, the Jewish Museum of Berlin and the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow, and also sits on the academic advisory board of The Magnes itself.
She advises on museums and exhibition projects all across the world. And I think that I will now turn the Zoom over to her and just to say what a pleasure it is. And thank you, all of you, for being here. And it’s over to you, Barbara.
Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett: Well, thank you very much, John. I think this conference is very important because it marks a whole new chapter for The Magnes collection. It really, it comes at a moment where we had hoped that we would be able to meet in person, but nonetheless, it does mark a new moment. And that moment is marked in part by the acquisition of the Vishniac collection, which is a relatively recent acquisition and the success of The Magnes collection in attracting a very large gift in support of the Vishniac collection.
And so, I think today, and this event really, I would say acknowledges and celebrates that achievement and also inaugurates this new chapter. I would personally like to thank John for organizing this conference — a very, I think very well structured, well received conference. And I want to also acknowledge Francesco for all of his very, very good work in bringing the Vishniac collection. And we’re going to hear more about that, of course, from Ben, who is the grandson of Roman Vishniac.
And so, we’ve now moved from those two very, very good, excellent in fact, papers on the wider historical context of Eastern Europe, specifically Poland, but also Czechoslovakia, Sam Kassow’s remarks and then Michael’s account of Germany of the period. We have this historical framework for looking at the work of Roman Vishniac and specifically, the work that deals with this, his iconic photographs in fact, the period of the 1930s.
And the historical reality that our historians presented this morning and the image that we have, and that lasts with us from the photographs, I think offer us some extremely important points of connection and points of contrast. And that will be really our subject this afternoon.
And so, our first speaker is Jeffrey Shandler and there’s nobody better to talk about Roman Vishniac and the way in which he has been received, which is a very, very big part of the story. The story is not only the time when he worked, it is not only what he did, but it’s the afterlife and the reception of his work. Particularly in the form of exhibitions and also, of course, publications, books, and that kind of thing.
Jeffrey Shandler is distinguished professor of Jewish studies at Rutgers University. And he is currently working on a new project on lost Jewish museums or the ones that were planned, but never realized. Which is very characteristic of his work, which is that it’s a surprising, fresh and very unlikely topic. He is carrying out this work currently as a National Endowment for the Humanity Scholar and Residence at the Center for Jewish History in New York.
Now, he is the author editor or translator of 16 books on modern and contemporary Jewish culture. Now, I have a few of my personal favorites. Of the many, many books that he has written, the most recent to appear is Yiddish: Biography of a Language. And this really is a wonderful, wonderful account of Yiddish language that brings together very, very diverse perspectives without trying to resolve them. And takes a very fresh, a very original approach to thinking about a language, if you will, biographically.
Another of my favorites is Shtetl: A Vernacular Intellectual History. And that seems to me to be very connected, very related to what he will be talking about today with regard to Roman Vishniac. Then, another of my favorites is Adventures in Yiddish Land, which is really a landmark book. And again, it has to do with the place of East European Jews in the popular imagination. And that is really a key to understanding Vishniac’s iconic photographs and their afterlife.
And so, these are among the many books that Jeffrey has published and that have had a huge impact and a huge influence on the field. He’s really a leading figure when it comes to looking at Yiddish from this range of perspectives across media. And looking at it from the perspective, if you will, of the way in which Yiddish is not only spoken, not only written, but also how it is imagined. And so without further ado, I would like Jeffrey to present how Roman Vishniac, his afterlife so to speak, and how he has been presented in exhibitions and publications.
Jeffrey Shandler: Thank you very much, Barbara. And I am trying to share my screen.
Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett: You are sharing.
Jeffrey Shandler: I am sharing. Okay, great. Thank you for your very kind introduction and thank you everyone for joining me today. My topic, as you see here, is to look at Roman Vishniac’s photographs, both their making and their odyssey of memory — how they become images of remembrance and how that has a dynamic of its own.
In Roman Vishniac’s long and varied career, which involves many thousands of pictures spanning seven decades, three continents, diverse genres, there’s one group of images which he created during a few years, most, if not all of them as part of one assignment. And these became the photographer’s best known work. Why do his pictures of Jewish life in Poland, Czechoslovakia and Romania, made approximately between 1935 and 1938, now loom so large in Vishniac’s extensive corpus? And what are the implications of their status as iconic works, emblematic of subjects beyond what the particular images depict?
The quality of these photographs are not inherently greater than the rest of Vishniac’s ouvre. Nor are they his most innovative work compared to his pioneering contributions to photomicroscopy. That is taking photographs through a microscope. Rather, these photographs are distinguished by their epiphenomena, the life circumstances of their subjects and the narratives that have surrounded these images. Narratives that have evolved from the time of the picture’s creation, through Vishniac’s life and beyond.
Shortly after these photographs were taken, most of the Jews they depict met a terrible faith during World War II. Those few who survived the Holocaust had to start their lives over in radically different circumstances. As a consequence, these photographs have come to be seen as a last glimpse of a murdered population and a destroyed way of life. Referred to repeatedly, including in conjunction with Vishniac’s work, as a “vanished world.”
Some of these photographs have a long history of repeated presentations in exhibitions and publications, including the first displays and photo albums about pre-war East European Jewish life that appeared in the United States in the 1940s. By dint of their frequent re-presentation, a few of these images have come to serve as icons, indexing this vanished world. Just one example, in 1973, one of Vishniac’s better known photographs appears on the cover of a paperback edition of Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg’s landmark anthology A Treasury of Yiddish Stories and provides the collection with a portal of gloomy shadows and wintery chill.
Complicating the symbolic value invested in these images are the stories of how they came to be created. When Vishniac took these photographs, he was based in Berlin, where he had been living since shortly after the end of World War I. Born in Russia in 1897, Vishniac’s early interests in biology and photography merged in his first youthful experiments in photomicroscopy, which would prove to be a lifelong passion. Vishniac studied biology at the Shanyavsky Institute in Moscow from 1914 to 1920, at which point he immigrated to Berlin to continue his scientific studies.
As an amateur photographer, Vishniac took pictures on the city streets through the 1920s and ’30s, eventually documenting the looming presence of Nazi ideas and practices as part of daily life in Berlin. Beginning in 1934, Vishniac photographed German-Jewish relief and community organizations operating in Berlin, such as this Jewish school. And as far as I know, he was doing this at his own initiative, but we’re going to hear more about the Berlin photos later today.
By his own account, Vishniac started to take photographs of East European Jews in 1936, though he subsequently dated some of these photographs a year earlier. It is known that by 1937, though perhaps earlier, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, or JDC for short — this is a relief organization founded in 1914 — had hired Vishniac to provide photographs for use in public relations efforts on behalf of the beleaguered Jews of Eastern Europe. Vishniac continued to take pictures there for the JDC until 1938, perhaps 1939. The range of dates isn’t entirely certain.
One of these images, a portrait of a girl who we’re told was named Sarah, was taken in a basement dwelling in Warsaw, and it was used on JDC letterhead for fundraising in 1938. And the image was also reproduced on charity tins. The JDC’s caption for another Vishniac photograph, which was distributed to the press during this period, exemplifies the organization’s use of these images to promote public awareness of the suffering of East European Jewry and to raise funds, to provide this community with relief.
The caption for this photograph reads as follows: “This is the most revered rabbi among the Orthodox Jews of Poland. [Inaudible] Rabbi Gutterman would never consent to be photographed. And the snapshot was taken without his knowledge as he was leaving a relief station. His work among the Polish Jews includes the distribution of special food required for the feast of Passover. The American Jewish Relief Committee, which is appealing for $14 million for the continuance of its relief work in Eastern Europe, has found in Rabbi Gutterman a worthy aid and counselor. The man at his right is a bodyguard. Conditions are such that the rabbi never walks alone.”
Some of Vishniac’s photographs document the efforts of various Jewish philanthropies working to improve the lives of East European Jews during the late 1930s, such as the Jewish organization, TOZ, a public health organization, based in Warsaw. This is one of the fresh air fund camps that they had nearby in Otwock. In addition to still photographs, Vishniac shot film footage for the JDC of Jews in villages in the Carpathians. This footage was intended for use in a promotional film that was never realized.
However, in post-war accounts of how he came to take these photographs, Vishniac did not, as a rule, acknowledge the role of the JDC in prompting him to take most, if not all of these pictures. Rather, he characterized this as a self-initiated project with a distinct agenda: Not for public relations and fundraising, but as an 11th-hour effort to document Jews who Vishniac had presaged as doomed.
In a 1955 interview, he explained, “My friends assured me that Hitler’s talk was sheer bombast, 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 are being threatened, to preserve, in pictures at least, a world that might soon cease to exist.” And in 1983, he would similarly write, “I was living in Germany in the ’30s, and I knew that Hitler had made it his mission to exterminate all Jews, especially the children and the women who could bear children in the future. I was unable to save my people, only their memory.”
Vishniac’s accounts of creating these photographs, heightened the sense of endangerment associated after the war with their subject. He described his photographic expeditions in Eastern Europe as arduous and fraught with perils, including the risks involved in the act of taking these pictures. Vishniac mentioned repeatedly that he had to keep the presence of his camera a secret, sometimes from ultraorthodox Jews. As in his words, he had to be mindful of the suspicion with which photographers or other imagemakers were greeted.
Non-Jewish authorities posed another, different kind of danger. In interviews, Vishniac mentioned that he was arrested 11 times during these photographic journeys. Vishniac’s accounts of the ordeal involved in creating these photographs also included the lengths to which he went in order to become equated with some of his subjects. Discussing pictures of Jewish porters in Warsaw, he commented, “For a month, I joined a group of 10 porters and pulled my loads. In this way, I came to understand the unquenchable spirit and endurance of my people.”
Vishniac characterized not only the subjects of these images as endangered, but also the corpus of his East European Jewish photographs. He reported that most of the 16,000 photographs he had taken on his travels in Eastern Europe were confiscated. As a consequence, the extant images, which is usually described as 2,000 in number, became the equivalent of [foreign language], rescued remnants. That is, they became the equivalent of survivors of the Holocaust.
During the first months of World War II, Vishniac was in France. In 1940, he was arrested and in prison for a month in an internment camp in France. Eventually, he was reunited with his wife and children in Lisbon. From there, they sailed to New York, arriving on New Year’s Eve of 1940. In 1942, a friend brought to New York the negatives that Vishniac had left behind in Europe.
That year, some of his photographs of East European Jews were displayed in New York at the new school and the following year at teachers college. Where, according to the New York Times, the photographer was identified as representing the JDC as you see here. The first major exhibitions of these photos were held at the YIVO Institute in New York in 1944 and ’45. YIVO explained that Vishniac took these photographs in an effort quote, “To obtain a permanent record of a way of life that was threatened with extinction.”
This description of Vishniac’s photographs allied their original use for fundraising or political action. Instead, viewing them became an end in itself, constituting a memorial act. Rather than documenting the struggle to go on with life, they present life about to disappear. Pictures that had been created as images of urgent need, became images of doom, constituting a journey to the vanishing point of East European Jewry.
The first major post-war publications of Vishniac’s photographs appear in two books. They were both issued in 1947. One was called Verschwundene Welt, The Vanished World. It’s a bilingual book. And the second, Polish Jews: a Pictorial Record. The text accompanying the photographs in these books evince the significance imparted to Vishniac’s photographs in the early aftermath of the Holocaust. While both volumes were offered, as memorial works, the scope, organization, contents and agenda of each book revealed differences that reflect diverging responses to the recent destruction of East European Jewish life and to the task of its remembrance.
The Vanished World was issued by the Forward Association, the publisher of the most widely read Yiddish newspaper in America. This is by far the more extensive of the two books presenting over 500 photographs of pre-war East European Jewish life. The images are offered as both an act of mourning the recent murder of millions of Jews, and as a commemoration of Eastern Europe as having been what the book characterizes as the religious and spiritual hegemony of world Jewry for five centuries. The volumes pictures are drawn from multiple sources, including several major archives.
Almost one-third of the photographs are by Vishniac. Other than pictures taken by Alter Kacyzne, who had worked regularly for the Jewish Daily Forward doing the interwar years, no other photographer’s work is featured as extensively.
Most of Vishniac’s photographs in The Vanished World are either of urban environments or are individual portraits. The photographs in this volume are offered primarily as ethnographic documentation. And therefore, some of Vishniac’s most effectively evocative images, which would eventually become among his best known work, are not included.
The introduction to The Vanished World reminds readers of the original pre-war provenance of its many photographs, while mindful of the shift in their significance in the post-war era. The introduction notes that these pictures were, and I’m quoting, “Taken by people who could not foresee that they were photographing a people on the eve of their destruction.”
The second book, Polish Jews, offers just 31 pictures, all of them taken by Vishniac. This much narrower selection of images presents East European Jewry as, per the volume’s preface, abjectly poor in its material condition and in its spiritual condition, exaltedly religious. This characterization is echoed in the volume’s introduction by the philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel, an essay that is titled “The Inner World of the Polish Jew.”
This abridged version of a text that Heschel first delivered at a YIVO conference in 1945 was eventually expanded into the 1950 book The Earth is the Lord’s: The Inner World of the Jew in Eastern Europe. In Polish Jews, photos that were originally meant to show economic hardship as an abject state in need of financial relief now valorize poverty as a signifier of spiritual richness.
The only statement Polish Jews provides about the taking of these photographs is a quote from Vishniac that appears on the dust jacket: “These pictures were made without letting the subjects know of the presence of the camera.” Considering this an essential feature of these images, Vishniac elaborated elsewhere on his account of taking these pictures with concealed cameras so that his subjects would be unaware that they were being photographed.
He explained that he enlarged a button hole in his winter coat so that the lens would fit through when the camera itself, in this case he’s talking about a Rolleiflex, remained hidden. Vishniac reported that when using a Leica, he hid the small camera in a handkerchief. Pretending to mop his brow, he quickly placed the camera in front of his eyes to focus and shoot. Vishniac disguised not only his camera, but himself as well, saying that he posed as a salesman of fabrics to explain his presence in out-of-the-way places and the suitcases in which he concealed his equipment.
Thus, with regard to the act of taking these photographs, the two books issued in 1947 diverge. Whereas The Vanished World notes that the photographers didn’t know the future fate of their subjects, Polish Jews asserts that they didn’t know that they were being photographed. And not withstanding Vishniac’s repeated assertions of this claim, some of his images strongly suggest his subjects’ awareness of the photographer’s gaze at least, if not of the camera.
Having established a new home in New York in the early 1940s, Vishniac soon resumed his scientific research. And after World War II, he accepted assignments to take photographs of Holocaust survivors in Europe — this is a DP camp near Berlin — and in the United States. He also worked as a freelance photographer for various organizations and institutes in New York. I think this is a Jewish community center in Bensonhurst. And he continued to take pictures for his own interest in the United States, also in Israel, which he visited in 1967. And we will hear more about that chapter of his career later today as well.
Public attention to Vishniac’s photography in the United States from the 1950s to the mid 1970s focused as much on his photo microscopy as on his pre-war East European Jewish images, if not more so. This is evinced by a publication of some of his photo microscopic images in LIFE magazine in 1951, for this article that’s entitled “New Ways to See Living Things,” as well as in a 1955 profile of Vishniac in the New Yorker, which was titled “The Tiny Landscape.”
In 1971, Vishniac’s book of color photomicroscopy, Building Blocks of Life, was published. That year, the Jewish Museum in New York presented The Concerns of Roman Vishniac: Man, Nature and Science, a major exhibition of his work curated by photojournalist Cornell Capa. And by placing Vishniac, rather than the subjects of his photographs, at the center of attention, the exhibition strove to characterize the two major focuses of Vishniac’s work, microscopic organisms and East European Jews, as being part of some larger integrated sensibility.
In the audio-visual presentation that was part of the exhibition, Vishniac’s narration suggested a link between his work as a natural scientist and his approach to documenting East European Jews. “I add a biological thought,” he explained about this population. “Like the bees or the ants, many of them are killed and destroyed, but something, something will survive.”
Starting in the 1970s, greater attention was paid to Vishniac’s photographs of pre-war East European Jews. Some of these pictures appear in YIVO’s 1976 exhibition and 1977 book Image Before My Eyes, already mentioned. And like The Forward Association’s The Vanished World, Image Before My Eyes presents photographs from numerous sources to document an era of Jewish life in its fullness.
1983 witnessed the publication of the first large-scale book devoted entirely to Vishniac’s photographs, almost all of East European Jews, titled A Vanished World. This oversized album includes 180 images and has a forward by Elie Wiesel. A Vanished World brought new level of attention to Vishniac’s photographs of pre-war East European Jewry. The book won a National Jewish Book Award, and an eponymous exhibition of these images organized by the International Center for Photography in New York, toured internationally through 1988.
A Vanished World resembles the 1947 book Polish Jewry in its exclusive photograph focus on Vishniac’s work, primarily images of East European Jewish piety and poverty, and its presentation of these images as a memorial work, pairing the photographs with sentiments of a leading figure of Holocaust remembrance.
In his forward, Wiesel writes that we “see two things at once: living beings yesterday, a void today.” At the same time, Wiesel imbues the photographs with the power to immortalize. He asserts that Vishniac took great risks to ensure that the victims will not wholly vanish into the abyss. “And,” he writes, “he has won the wager; they live still.”
Exemplified by the book’s cover image, an elderly Jew, his face hidden in shadow, this population is captured on the cusp of vanishing somewhere between life and death. Unlike the previous volumes, featuring these photographs, A Vanished World offers Vishniac’s own voice prominently. In his commentary on the photographs, he describes them repeatedly as documents of political and economic oppression and rising antisemitism. In some instances, a seemingly benign picture becomes an image of persecution through Vishniac’s account of what happened before or after the picture was taken or what was taking place beyond the image’s frame.
For example, he writes of this photograph: “Here, on a street in Warsaw that is off limits to Jewish peddlers, a family is selling fresh bagels. On Jewish streets, nobody has money to buy anything but ordinary bread. Almost immediately after I took this picture, policemen, who had been hiding behind a house gate, rushed out, grabbed some of the bagels, and kicked over the basket. The peddlers shouted. I ran with my concealed camera. The bagels lay in the gutter.”
Vishniac died in 1990 at the age of 92. In the decades since his death, his photographs of East European Jews taken in the late 1930s continue to appear in new publications and exhibitions, variously extending their iconic value and resituating the narrative of their creation. Eight of Vishniac’s photographs were installed in a special gallery within the main exhibition of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, which opened in 1993 in Washington, D.C. Titled On the Eve of Destruction, the gallery portrays, and this is their language, “traditional Orthodox Jewry in pre-war Eastern Europe as observed by the well-known photographer.”
The installation is unique within the museum’s extensive exhibition and extensive use of photography. Individual prints of Vishniac’s photographs are matted and framed. In the center of the gallery is a vitrine containing a Torah scroll and a pointer. They’re from the hoard of Judaica that German forces had confiscated from Jewish communities in Czechoslovakia. Displayed in a setting that evokes both an art gallery and a synagogue, Vishniac’s photographs are offered as works of art and as votive objects.
Two books containing Vishniac’s East European Jewish photographs were issued in the 1990s: To Give Them Light in 1993, Children of a Vanished World in 1999. The selection of photographs in both volume avoids many of Vishniac’s best known images — those of elderly Jews and grim urban environments often photographed in dark shadows, embodying impoverishment, persecution, and despair. Instead, these volumes present photographs of East European Jews, especially children, who are on the cover of both of these collections, who are characterized in one of the books as “when their lives still coursed with energy and creativity.” So, these books offer the photographs as redemptive works rather than as images of doom.
Moreover, texts in these two albums by Vishniac’s daughter, Mara Vishniac Kohn, acknowledged the role of the JDC in initiating this documentary project. This information was also included in Roman Vishniac Revisited, the catalog of the 2013 retrospective on Vishniac’s career mounted at New York’s International Center for Photography, and then touring internationally.
A distinctive measure of the iconic stature of Vishniac’s photos of pre-war East European Jewry is their inspiration for the work of other visual artists. The formal characteristics of these images influenced Janusz Kaminski, the cinematographer of Schindler’s List, who credited Vishniac’s photos as the “guiding force” for the 1993 feature film’s “visual interpretation,” his words, of the Holocaust era.
Avant-garde artist Eleanor Antin restaged one of Vishniac’s photographs, the one you see on the left, in The Man Without a World, a faux 1920s silent Yiddish film that actually was made in 1992. And that same year, another American artist, Naomie Kremer, commenced work on a series of pieces titled Shtetl.
This artwork began with a set of contour drawings Kremer made while looking at some of Vishniac’s photographs that were published in A Vanished World. Years later, Kremer created a set of prints, such as the one you see here, that superimpose her drawings on the original photographs. Kremer’s drawings were also the basis of a three-minute digital animated video, and all of these works in this series were exhibited at The Magnes Museum in its former building in 2005.
As a result of these photographs’ post-war odyssey, Vishniac’s association with East European Jewry in the years before the Holocaust is now so well established that his name can invoke this era. “It has become,” Elie Wiesel posited, “the time of Vishniac.” To understand how the wide familiarity of these images can both inform and constrain our understanding of pre-war East European Jewish life, it is essential to attend to the photographs’ inherently selective presentation of their subject, informed by the circumstances of their taking and the photographer’s sensibility, as well as the narratives he and others offer about these images.
This attention grows in importance as these and other representations play an ever greater role in approaching this bygone era. Therefore, viewing these images in relation to the work of other photographers of East European Jewry, including studio photographers, is key. These two photographs are from the collection of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, and in both of these photographs appear individuals who are also photographed by Vishniac. So, it’s quite remarkable to think about his photographs of the same individual as it might appear in a very, very different kind of photograph, a very different kind of photographic practice. And by making this kind of comparison, it helps us not only understand this population, but also the varied role that picture-taking played in their lives.
Vishniac’s East European Jewish photographs should also be viewed in relation to his other work, as well as to other examples of documentary photography of the 1930s as the medium was being deployed in new ways to engage the public in issues of social injustice. In their iconic stature, some of Vishniac’s pre-war East European Jewish images have become markers of the dynamics of how this time and place has been remembered beyond the photographs themselves. Interrogating the narratives constructed around these images and the symbolic values invested in both the photographs and the photographer enriches our understanding of the origin of these works, and doing so reminds us of the contingency of their significance. A significance that like the photographs themselves has traveled a remarkable odyssey. Thank you.
Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett: Thank you very, very much, Jeff. As usual, it was brilliant, clear, deeply researched, comprehensive and full of insights. I very much hope that our listeners will put their questions in the chat or in the Q&A and we’ll have an opportunity to raise them with you after we’ve heard from Ben Schiff.
Ben Schiff is an emeritus professor of politics and law at Oberlin College. And from 1979 to 2016, he taught courses on international relations, including international organization, international law, Middle East politics, Israel-Palestine conflict, war weapons and armed control, and advanced seminars on various topics, including most recently, international criminal law. He is the author of three books on these topics, and he has co-authored with his wife June Goodwin, Heart of Whiteness: Afrikaners Face Black Rule in the New South Africa, which was published in 1995, and two paperback thrillers. After Jeffrey’s talk, I have the feeling that Roman Vishniac is himself the hero of a kind of thriller.
He retired to Oakland, where he bikes and does woodworking. He is the grandson of Roman Vishniac, the son of Roman’s daughter, Mara Kohn, and he played a very, very important role in bringing the Vishniac collection from the International Center for Photography to The Magnes, where it has really found a place where this treasure will be valued and cared for, and really be given to the public in a way that it deserves. And so, now we’ll hear a very different perspective on Roman Vishniac and his incredible contribution as a photographer. Thank you, Ben.
Benjamin Schiff: Thank you to the symposium participants and especially to John Efron and Francesco Spagnolo for conceiving and developing this event; and to Laura, Brad and Jennifer Lipscomb for so kindly handling the logistics; and of course, to Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett for her kind introduction and all that she’s done for The Magnes.
The prints behind me are modern prints made by writer, artist and photographer Penny Wolin, of three Vishniac transparencies that were in my mother’s possession until recently. We have here a wasp, which I’ll refer to later. I believe this one is one of Roman’s pictures of his own skin. And these are some diatoms that I thought they go well with my shirt.
Roman was a major presence in my and my sister Naomi lives. When we were a little, our family visited him from our Ohio home, driving to Manhattan. After we moved to California, arriving on the last day of 1958, he often stopped by on trips connected to conferences, meetings and exhibitions. We spoke with him on the phone. He sent letters and gifts to us. He was a frequent subject of our parents’ conversations.
On one epic family summer road trip, Roman and his wife Edith converged with us and with our father’s parents in Glacier Park, Montana, where we camped and the older folks stayed in the lodge. A few years later, Naomi and I accompanied Roman and Edith to a design conference at Asilomar. While Roman lectured and met with famous people, Naomi and I mostly visited tide pools, although Naomi vividly recalls meeting Buckminster Fuller there. Later, whenever we were in New York, we visited him in his apartment on West 81st Street.
Roman was an enormously energetic person, a professional photographer, a lover of art, nature and life, a storyteller, and I think a 19th century romantic and nature philosopher. He loved biology, especially microbiology, and he loved taking pictures. Various biographical sketches cite his claim that when he was seven, he used his box camera to take a picture of a cockroach’s leg through his microscope.
Although there’s uncertainty about exactly what he did following entry into Moscow University in 1914, he likely worked in or around the laboratory of Nikolai Koltsov, described in a recent article about Roman as “a leading developmental biologist” based at the Shanyavsky Institute, now the Russian State University for the Humanities. Some of what I’m going to say about Roman’s subsequent career is based on this fine article, “Illuminating Roman Vishniac: a Career in Biological Photography and Cinematography” by Howard J. Radzyner and Norman J. Barker, published in the online Journal of Biocommunication in 2018. For an excellent chronology and discussion of Roman’s scientific work, this article is vital reading.
Born near St. Petersburg, Roman departed Moscow as a young man in 1920, shedding his Russian Army uniform, and on his way to Berlin via Riga, marrying his fiance, my dear grandmother, Luta. They married at least partly to gain him Latvian travel papers. When Luta and Roman established themselves in Berlin, his father Solomon tried several times to set him up in business, but Roman resolutely failed each time. He wanted to be a photographer and a scientist, not a businessman.
Soaking in the Russian émigré society of Berlin, Luta and Roman lived well with the support of their parents, and Roman worked to develop his photography profession as a source of income. As circumstances deteriorated for Jews in Germany, they were very awake to the gathering threat. Connected to Jewish organizations, Roman also recognized an opportunity. The photos of the 1930s that he took in the Eastern European shtetlach are of course classics. There were also fulfillment of contracts with a joint distribution committee. Roman was a great photographer with a keen eye and a terrific aesthetic sense. His 1930s and ’40s Jewish, New York and Berlin photographs demonstrate his humanism and his artistry. They were also the efforts of a striving professional photographer to make a living.
Roman and his family, my grandmother, Luta, my mother, Mara and my uncle, Wolf, arrived in New York on New Year’s Eve, December 31st, 1940. Roman immediately started working as a photographer, primarily doing portraits, including a well-known series on Albert Einstein, and for Jewish organization fundraising. Luta and Roman’s relationship had soured long before, but they stayed together to facilitate their immigration. Immediately after the war, they divorced, and Roman traveled back to demolished Europe, taking pictures and locating his love, Edith, who became his second wife and his lifelong helper.
Roman’s first sale of scientific images was in 1942, as Radzyner and Barker put it, “a series of photographs documenting the nuptial dance of the Mayfly” to Nature magazine. By the mid 1940s, he was already applying to the Guggenheim Foundation to fund his nature photography, and Radzyner and Barker say that by about 1950, “Vishniac was able to largely give up on his non-scientific work and concentrate all his efforts in the realm of biology.”
In 1950, his 48 images of Animals in Motion showed at the American Museum of Natural History in New York and subsequently at the Field Museum in Chicago. In 1951, his exhibition, The World at Your Threshold in New York’s Central Park, featured his photos of local microscopic life. He was doing what he most loved, taking pictures through microscopes.
Roman continued to apply for funding, propose photo and cinematic projects and correspond with editors of major publications. In 1951, he published an article in Life magazine with vivid color photographs, promoting what he called his colorization innovation. Radzyner and Barker argue his system was his own combination of known illumination methods, not really a new technique.
From the 1950s through the ’70s, he applied for grants, including successfully to the National Science Foundation for a series of educational films that were ultimately distributed by McGraw Hill. He gained a research associateship at Yeshiva University, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, and he carried out many photographic contracts for companies, such as Abbot Laboratories, Bristol Myers and Company, Pfizer and the Shell Oil Company. He was a hard-working, innovative nature photographer, photomicrographer and sine photomicrographer and that’s how he paid his rent. He loved his work and he sought to be at photography’s forefront.
Roman published an image of a cicada killer wasp in Life in 1959 and the same or another image from the same series, graced the July 12th, 1976 cover of TIME magazine. This is one of the images from that series. Radzyner and Barker analyzing the photo and noting that the caption indicated that the exposure was 1/75,000th of a second, hypothesized that Roman worked to capture it with Harold Edgerton of MIT, the great 20th century innovator of high speed photography with whom Roman shared some summers at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
Roman’s work gained lots of attention. He was featured in the two part New Yorker profile in 1955 and in the same year was awarded the Memorial Award at the American Society of Magazine Photographers for his scientific photographic work. He was a member of numerous photographic and scientific organizations.
By the 1970s, Roman was considered a leading nature photographer and perhaps the greatest photographer of living microscopic creatures. He stressed the idea that his photos employed living organisms that would survive his methods. He argued that one could not learn about life from dead and distorted specimens, squashed under cover slips on slides. Like others in Roman’s ambit, Naomi and I visited what he called his laboratory and his apartment, which had taken over what otherwise would’ve been the bedroom. We peered through microscopes and into aquariums under his direction, but so far as we know, he never taught anyone how he did what he did. If he kept notes, we don’t know that they survived. Perhaps there are relevant files yet to be explored here at the archive at The Magnes.
His 1971 exhibition at the International Fund for Concerned Photography at the New York City Jewish Museum, The Concerns of Roman Vishniac, Man, Nature and Science, included both documentary and biological prints with explanatory essays by Michael Adelson, then the executive editor of Popular Photography magazine. The same year ABC News produced a television special, The Concerns Of Roman Vishniac. He and his work appeared in the first issue of Omni magazine in October, 1978 and in 1979, he received the Eastman Kodak Gold Medal Award from the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers. He treasured that Kodak award. I remember him clearly once in his apartment showing the medal to me and in his usual, immodest way saying it was the Nobel Prize of photography.
Roman was much more than a photographer. I think he saw himself as part of the tradition of the natural philosopher, a synthetic thinker along the lines of Alexander von Humboldt perhaps, whose explorations, that is Roman’s explorations took place, not in the exotic locales that Von Humboldt explored so much as in the boundless expanses of the micro world. His heroes were Galileo and van Leeuwenhoek. Galileo, devoted to his observations, ran the risks, attendant upon opposing church doctrine. Van Leeuwenhoek, having developed his skills from looking closely at the textiles he sold, saw microscopic organisms never before seen using microscopes of his own making. He wasn’t formally trained or an academic and didn’t know Latin, the lingua franca of science at the time, but he was a fabulous autodidact, lens innovator and lens grinder, and an observer and recorder, a peerless observer and recorder of what he saw.
Roman believed that van Leeuwenhoek’s highest magnifications could only have been obtained with compound microscopes, although the only existing hard records and evidence, document van Leeuwenhoek’s single lens microscopes. Roman thought van Leeuwenhoek kept his most advanced technology a secret, maybe similarly to how Roman was vague about what he was up to. Roman wanted to be thought of like Galileo and van Leeuwenhoek, as a heroic and great innovator.
He liked to refer to himself as Dr. Roman Vishniac, even though he never completed a doctorate. In the 1970s and ’80s, he accumulated honorary degrees, so the doctor was eventually earned, but it always seemed to me that his accomplishments as an autodidact like van Leeuwenhoek, were more impressive as the product of his own independent study than they would’ve been if he had the kind of academic background he respected so much in others and that he craved as a young man, when revolution, war and his father intervened.
He collected and read books on alchemy, astrology, biology, mathematics, mechanics, early geology and chemistry, botany, travel and exploration and books that were exemplars of beautiful images from the 1400’s to the early 20th century. Roman not only thought of himself as part of the tradition of natural philosophers and early observational scientists, he wrote voluminously and vividly about the history of science, the evolution of life and the development, especially of light microscope technology.
In 1965 in New York, Roman connected with a family friend, Michael Steinfeld, who now lives in Santa Rosa, California to help him edit his prose into more straightforward English. Steinfeld visited Roman in his apartment for more than 10 years, working through manuscripts with him. Mara met Michael by chance in Los Angeles in the late 1990s and she agreed to loan him the manuscripts he had edited for Roman 20 years earlier. Steinfeld worked with him for years to delineate and reconstruct the drafts recently turning them over to me, along with a lovely essay about his experiences with Roman called A Photographer’s Word.
Michael organized the manuscripts into 13 separate, although somewhat overlapping, items, individual projects and multiple draft manuscripts from early handwritten material that he remembers from his first encounters with Roman back in the mid sixties to later edited and typed versions. And the titles for example, include As Far As We Know; The Science Of Life; Biology Through The Microscope; History of Science; Invisible World; Men and Microscopes.
Neither Michael, who became the head librarian of the Beverly Hills Library among other accomplishments, nor I, are qualified to say whether Roman’s histories of science and microscopy or his ruminations on the evolution of life, were significant accomplishments or unique. They were never reviewed in full or published. But working in multiple languages from old texts, languages that he taught himself, Latin, old high German, French, Greek, Hebrew, his energy level…Oh, and Italian, his energy level, his devotion, his seriousness and his passion come through clearly.
His romantic qualities come through in his vivid speech patterns, his storytelling and his picture captions and in his writing. In his brief memoir, Michael Steinfeld reflected on Roman’s imaginative descriptions of the tiny animals that fascinated him, quoting from one of the manuscripts, “In the fairy kingdom of rotifers, living creatures swim with their hair, have ruby eyes flashing from deep in their necks and limbs that can telescope into their bodies or extend to many times their normal length. Strange objects ride on an anchor and are tied up by delicate silky threads spun from their toes.”
Roman’s old book collection also provided much of the artwork that he projected onto screens for classes that he gave at places like the Pratt Institute and the Rhode Island School of Design, where he lectured on subjects, such as creativity and art and science, as well as when he gave guest lectures around the country and overseas. He loved to develop themes also and expressed in one of his photo books, The Building Blocks of Life, which has stunning color microphotographs of various organic substances, for him demonstrating the convergence of science and art. His wife, Edith, manned the slide and movie projectors while he regaled his audiences.
Roman never learned to drive. Edith did the driving. I have to admit that the few times I heard Roman lecture, I was kind of embarrassed, but it was the youthful embarrassment of watching this astonishingly extroverted, heavily accented, highly dramatic man, my grandfather say things that people took seriously, even when I wondered what sense it all made. His apartment in Manhattan also demonstrated his eclectic interests and his visual sense. Very little space was devoted to the mundanities of mere apartment life. While the bedroom had long since gone as a laboratory space, the rest of the space was crammed with display cabinets of magnificent Japanese artifacts, lacquer boxes, netsukes, sword tsuba, some swords themselves, small statues that he collected on various trips and lots of other objects. When my sister Naomi and I took remnants of his ancient coin collection to an expert here in Emeryville, he immediately commented on what an eye Roman had for the image qualities of the coins and how coherent the collection was that we presented to him.
Roman didn’t collect, so far as we can tell, with much concern about investment value. Rather, he collected books that were significant to him, coins that were interesting because of their link to Jewish life and Roman times, Japanese artifacts, because he thought they were beautiful and lots of other odds and ends including colorful textiles, such as Sudanese, and an 18-foot-long Chinese celebratory banner. I think it was hard for him to resist acquiring things he found beautiful encountered in his travels around the world and in New York.
He was a photographer seeking to record creatures in their own habitats, whether rural Jews in Eastern Europe or paramecium in pond water. He was a collector whose collections reflected the architecture of his interests, science, art, natural and manmade beauty. He was sometimes an impossible patriarch, always a bit grandiose. He was a spinner of tales about his adventures and his photographs and it was sometimes hard to tell where reality left off and embellishment began, but there was always some truth to what he said and often considerable insight. He was enchanting to children, charming to his fans and devoted to the miracle and sanctity of life. He developed his photographic and microscopic innovations to record life in detail, honoring it without disrupting it. He always returned his water samples with their tiny creatures to the pond or creek where he had collected it.
Roman’s daughter, Mara, Naomi’s and my mother, spent about 20 years from the late 1980s, when Roman could no longer manage his affairs, until her demise in 2018, publicizing, organizing and planning for the disposition of his many possessions and his photographic legacy. Mara was adamant that both the documentary photos and the scientific work should be available to the public and to scholars and efforts should continue to organize, publicize, circulate and study the material.
In the mid-1990s, Mara was contacted by biology professor John Heard Jr., of the University of South Carolina, who had heard from a colleague member of the Appalachian Regional Microscopy Society, that she was looking for an archive to which to donate Roman’s biology related work. In a 2015 article reflecting on the donation, professor Heard said of Roman’s work, “A lot of what he did has become so standard that most people don’t even know about it. He showed a flair for technique, such as photographing his daughter through the multifaceted eye of an insect. The work’s historic value,” he said, “is both priceless and often underappreciated.”
Once professor Heard clarified to Mara that USC was not the University of Southern California, from which she hadn’t received any responses to queries, but the University of South Carolina, she agreed to donate film and some still photographic materials. Professor Heard believes that her crucial reason that she went to South Carolina, or with South Carolina was that it was also the home to the News Film Library, a forerunner of what is now the Moving Image Research Collections, which house the Fox Movietone News Collection. The donation of Vishniac materials included more than 150,000 feet of Roman’s film and 800 still. I hope South Carolina and The Magnes can link their collections together.
Meanwhile, Mara helped bring out three books of his photographs, worked with Maya Benton at The International Center for Photography in New York to organize the enormous bulk of materials that Mara had rescued from his apartment and eventually to develop and travel ICP’s fine 2013 exhibition Roman Vishniac Rediscovered. For many years, we discussed with ICP permanently donating the archive there, but our negotiations never quite gave Mara the confidence she sought that the work would remain accessible and in use.
In her last years, she increasingly worried about what was happening with the archive and we began discussions with The Magnes Collection and the person of curator Francesco Spagnolo about possibly donating the materials here. When Francesco, Magnes and the University of California assured us that the full range of Roman’s work, from the stetlach to the amoebas, would receive continuing attention and be available for study, we commenced the negotiations that culminated in Mara’s donation to The Magnes. She was so relieved and really joyful, when in late October 2018, a climate-controlled truck was loaded in New York and the materials were shipped here safely. Mara passed away about six weeks later, her labors to assure the future of her father’s work successfully concluded.
Naomi and I are grateful to Francesco, to The Magnes and its donors, and to the University of California for keeping our grandfather’s legacy and our mother’s devotion alive. And we’re grateful to all those involved here in this symposium, presenters, participants for your interest in his work. Thank you.
Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett: Thank you very, very much Ben. I think only you could have provided us with these incredible insights. And I did detect an element of the thriller in your account of Roman and the many mysteries that he created and left for us to decipher. So, I want to thank you very, very much for sharing both your personal reflections, but also your insights.
And in particular, really bringing forward his microscopy, because I think those of us in Jewish studies of course, are more familiar with, understand better, and are probably more interested in his pre-war and immediately post-war photography. But in fact, most of his career was dedicated to microscopy, which seems to be first love. I mean, it was, I think when Jeff showed the photograph of the ameba, from the very beginning and you described him using a pinhole camera to photograph a cockroach’s leg, really he came full circle. He finally, he somehow rather came to what it was, not what he was commissioned to do, but what he really most loved and wanted to do. And I do think that it’s wonderful that your mother got to see this collection come to
The Magnes and to a place where it really will be cared for and where it has enormous potential for the University of California and of course, much more widely.
So we have time now for questions and I think what I’d like to do, they’re just a few and some of them are quite specific. So let me… There’s one of them about Vishniac’s unpublished images of Vienna in the 1920s and thirties. How many were there? What do they tell us about Jewish life in the inter- war years in Vienna? And I don’t know Jeff, is that something that you want to respond to or should we defer it?
Jeffrey Shandler: You know, it’s not something I’m familiar with and that might be something one of the panelists or Francesco could address later today.
Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett: Okay. Yes, but that was one of the questions. The other question was who were Vishniac’s artistic influences? What were his social circles like? I know he connected to other photographers and some intellectuals, but I’d like to know more about his acculturation into the world of photography. And for that matter, the commerce of photography. I don’t know whether that’s something Jeff or Ben that you might want to say something about?
Benjamin Schiff: Maybe Jeff does.
Jeffrey Shandler: I know a little bit is that when he was in Berlin, and again, we may hear more about this later today, he started to join photography clubs. And while these were amateur undertakings, they were serious amateurs, seriously interested in developing and showing their abilities as photographers. And that’s where he is really… And before the war in concert with other photographers in Berlin. He’s still based in Berlin when he makes these expeditions to Eastern Europe. And when he’s there, it’s not to be part of a cultural milieu, it was to take these pictures for the joint and then to come back home to Berlin. So Berlin would be the place where he begins to develop associations with other photographers and of course, Berlin at the amateur level, and of course, at the professional level, this major center of pushing the envelope of photography in the Weimar period.
Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett: And in fact, if you compare his professional connections in his microscopic, if you compare what he did professionally, all the associations he belonged to, the awards that he got, when you see how he really crafted a career in that arena, he didn’t do that with the other material, with his earlier work.
Jeffrey Shandler: So, the photographs he was taking of people, were either for his own interest or he was hired to do a job. And that includes after the war going back and photographing DP camps and photographing war torn Europe right after the war. In New York, he’s taking pictures for Jewish organizations. He takes pictures at a psychiatric hospital, if I remember, of patients, he does some portrait photography. He also does then things he’s interested in New York, so the kind of street photography he was doing in Berlin, he continues to do in New York. So the non-scientific photography pulls in two different directions that are different from what I think of as his professional passion, the science is really at the center, that’s how he identified himself. He has a business card that doesn’t say freelance photographer, it says that he’s a biologist. As powerful as a lot of these photographs that he takes beyond the scientific were, they are not the main sustained professional event, which to some extent makes them even more remarkable.
Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett: Absolutely. I mean, in a way he was a gun for hire. In other words, he did a lot of them, because he was hired to do them. And then he had I would say, a general interest in taking some interesting photos, but he wasn’t making a career as a photographer of that topic in a very self-conscious way, in the way that he did with his scientific photography. It’s a really, really big difference in how he, in a sense, thought about himself professionally. So I would agree that’s extraordinary. There’s a question here and that is, do his photographs from Eastern Europe mainly feature men, because he was not allowed to photograph women? I’m just curious what you would say about that. I have my own thoughts, but I want to hear you.
Jeffrey Shandler: Well, the first publication, the book called Polish Jews, Vishniac actually himself says, “This isn’t the photographs I would’ve picked, but this had to do with a donor for this project.” But that the focus was on Jewish piety and poverty and to some extent he was photographing poverty, because the JDC wanted images of Jews in need to raise money. The images of piety centered on men, because men were the icons of piety, because of the way they dressed. Women were not as distinguished in their dress or in practice being a [inaudible], which he photographs. So the photographs that wind up circulating early because of the book Polish Jews, they’re mostly of men, the reason is because of that iconic value that book was asked to address.
Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett: Yeah. But simply, they look Jewish. I mean, in the most, they’re visibly, iconically [inaudible].
Jeffrey Shandler: They look pious.
Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett: Exactly. That becomes the icon.
Jeffrey Shandler: Right. And the other thing that he photographs for those purposes are children in need, like the little girl who ends up being on the stationary and there’s some other pictures of kids looking miserable. And so that’s why you get what you get. And it’s so interesting to think about what you don’t get, because partly what he’s asked to photograph and partly where his interests taken. So there’s no photograph of middle class Jews. There’s no photographs of going to the Yiddish theater. There’s no [inaudible] rallies, [inaudible] soccer teams, all these other kinds of things that there are photographs of. But that he had an assignment and how he understood the assignment and how he was directed makes this very selective body of work, which in part is gendered. We do see in the larger number of photographs that come out later, there are actually a fair number of photographs of women that he did take, but they didn’t become the iconic images, especially if they were smiling. Nobody’s supposed to smile in these photos because…
Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett: Also, if they were fashionably dressed.
Jeffrey Shandler: Right. It has a lot to do with the ideas of what kind of photography tugs on the hearts of people. And that’s what the [inaudible] wanted. They said, we need photographs that are going to move people to give us money.
Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett: The headline in the New York Times “scenes of misery,” that says it all. That says it all. So we have another question here and that is what are the chief controversies about Vishniac’s photographs of Eastern European Jews?
Jeffrey Shandler: I think the stories about that… He was always using a hidden camera. Some photographs I can see where yes, they may very well have been using a hidden camera because of the subjects of the location. So like in [inaudible] he takes pictures inside [inaudible] during a [inaudible], a [inaudible] lesson, and he’s in the back of the room and it’s dark, I can see he doesn’t want the camera to be seen. But some of these photographs, I really question that he was using hidden cameras all the time. So that’s one. And the other is the story that these photos were a commission rather than a mission on his part, and this idea is, “I’m going to save these people through photographs, because I can’t save them physically. And I know they’re going to be exterminated.”
We heard earlier today, our historians talking about that people were building their lives during this period, struggling with difficult circumstances politically and economically, but not expecting extermination and Vishniac I think reads back into the photos that he was on this mission to preserve people who were going to be destroyed. And both of those are provocative ideas, but they’re part of the narrative now. And I think it’s important to recognize what those claims impart to the photographs, as people who don’t know they’re being photographed and as people, the photographer sees on his own as doomed, whereas in fact he’s photographing them so they can have a future. Those I think are the challenges with not the photographs themselves, but the stories around the photographs.
And it’s interesting that when YIVO announces its first exhibition in 1944, as far as I can tell, they don’t mention the Joint. And so, whether it was Vishniac instigation or on their own, they begin the narrative of “last glimpse of people about to disappear.” That’s when that way of characterizing the photographs gets presented. And so it’s interesting to think that there is that turn that happens early on and then posthumously that part of what Mara Vishniac Kohn does is she brings the original mission back into the published narrative and in the two books that she supervises in the 1990s, she makes it very clear, these pictures were taken at the request of the Joint and you read the photographs differently as a result.
Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett: Right. And I think one of the controversies, or if you will, one of the concerns is that if you see it in relation to what Sam Kassow talked about this morning, and that is all those books that are … Like Celia Heller’s On the Edge of Destruction, all of that is post factum, those are post-Holocaust readings of the pre-Holocaust era. And what is so peculiar is that Vishniac is in a situation where he posits that those he’s photographing, they do not know they’re being photographed, he does. And they do not know they’re going to die, but he does. And so, there’s this asymmetry between their unknowingness and what he knows, but all of that is post facto. And what that does is to produce a very powerful Holocaust lens through which not only these images and these people, but the history of, if you will, Jewish life in Eastern Europe before the Holocaust is seen that as if one cannot see it, except through the lens of the Holocaust, which means to, in a sense back shadow from the postwar period.
And of course what it means is that these are… That these photographs become a eulogy in essence. They become a kind of Mitzvah, they become a kind of a tombstone. They function in a very particular way, which I think, Jeffrey brought out extremely well. But I have a question for Ben and that is did you and Naomi, or did the family ever talk with Roman about these pre-war photographs? I mean, obviously you knew about them and they were being shown, but did you ever have a conversation with him about them?
Benjamin Schiff: I think the stories that I heard were the same ones that he has been cited relating publicly. I can’t speak for my mother on this, but Roman in my experience was very consistent. And the way that Jeffrey you and Barbara are characterizing the retrospection involved in how he explained what he was doing, and what he understood, it’s the same story that I heard. I think if you put that in the context of his general personality and mode of expression, he was always willing to assert his own omniscience. The captions tell stories that are very hard or impossible to verify or to debunk because they’re his stories and he was there and nobody else is able to testify one way or the other.
The few times that I recall asking him about some of those stories, when somehow it didn’t quite make sense to me, I didn’t get more explanation. I think I got some resentment that it’s not my place to question what he was saying about the circumstances wherein he took those photographs. I use the word romantic when I talk about Roman and I mean that not lightheartedly. He was very aware, certainly by the ’60s and ’70s, of the historical weight that was pressing upon those photographs.
He was very responsive to his audiences and he was happy, I think, to create a context in which this all made sense to him and would make sense to his audiences. And that was really maybe more important than accuracy. So there may be some amount of fiction involved. It’s very hard to tell where the fiction begins and leaves off. And that was, I think, many people’s experiences with Roman. That’s kind of the character he was.
But for me, and I think for my mother, the thing you can’t get around was that he was a fabulous photographer. And so the images like those of any fabulous photographer really cycle through different explanations, as we look historically at the events that enable them to be recorded and people will reinterpret the meaning of those images, according to some extent to their own preferences. So his romanticism, or sometimes his fantasies were a little hard to stomach, but at root, he had a fabulous eye for what he was recording. And he really did tap into the essence, at least of what he was looking at, if not the entire culture. But then we’re all limited in how we record what goes on around us when we’re engaged in history writing or in my case, political science or in his case photography.
Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett: Right. I think, characterizing him as a romantic is really appropriate because it accounts for an element of the poetic in the way that he approaches. Also when you read the caption for one of the microscopy photographs, you could see there is a way in which these subjects, whether they’re East European Jews or they’re insects, capture his imagination, and that there’s an element of poetry that he brings to it. I think that’s part of the aesthetic that fascinates him as much as the science. And I think that is reflected in how he captions the insects, but also the comparison between insects and people. I have to say, that’s another whole conversation.
I mean, it’s another topic I don’t want to open up, a can of worms, so to speak, at this particular moment. I know that we’re coming close to the end and I want to give John an opportunity to answer one of the questions, but there is another one, Jeffrey… Well, I think it’s really important to understand why Cornell Capa and ICP would’ve been so interested in the East European Jewish photographs because of course, Cornell Capa is the brother of Robert Capa and established ICP as an institution devoted to concerned photography. And as Jeffrey showed, there were other examples at the time, the WPA photographers, Dorothea Lange and others. And there’s a question here as to whether or not Vishniac was familiar with them or with European versions of them, because this is not concerned photography in quite the same way. Although the WPA photographers were commissioned, they weren’t just given money to go out there and take photographs. So I don’t know, Jeff, do you want to respond to that?
Jeffrey Shandler: I do not know from what he had to say about that he was looking at other photographer’s work per se, but certainly aesthetically, you can see in some of the photographs that he takes, that they bear a strong resemblance informally, to other kinds of photography in the period. So he must have been looking at work as it was appearing whether in galleries or in publications, of course, the photo-
Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett: The illustrated press of the period.
Jeffrey Shandler: Right. It was huge. And I actually got that Life magazine issue from the 1950s, and I forgot what Life magazine was like. It was huge. And you unfurl these pages of huge photographs, and we just don’t do that anymore with weekly publications like that. So the opportunity to look at photographs that were in the press, let alone in galleries and also the use of photographs in various kinds of public relations campaigns and fundraising campaigns, which was new in the period. I can’t help but think that he was looking at those because of how photos that he’s taking are very similar formally to those.
Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett: Right. I would agree. So, John, I want to give you an opportunity to an answer a question. I understand that The Magnes is raising funds to digitize the collection. But my understanding is that all the negative print contact sheets were already digitized and put online as part of the work at ICP. So you get the last word. Well, actually just before the last word, I just want to quickly give a shout out to Shana Penn and Taube Philanthropies, because they have been really, really important in helping The Magnes to come to where they are today. So the last word is over to you.
John Efron: Okay. All I’ll say is that is not entirely correct. Some of the ICP materials had been digitized, nowhere near the entire archive. And they were, as I understand it, digitized for the specific purposes of the exhibition that was done there. So it wasn’t a part of a general undertaking to preserve and digitize catalog and whatever else requires be done to such a gigantic and gargantuan collection, but it was done very, very specifically. So our project for which we’ve raised significant funds is to do a comprehensive and full accounting, digitization, preservation, cataloging, etc., to the entire Vishniac archive as it exists in our possession.
Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett: Thank you very much. I don’t know — do we have time for any more questions or is our time up?
John Efron: Well, we are finished with this session timewise, so there may be time a little later, but let me just take the opportunity to thank both of our speakers just now Jeff and Ben for their very different, and yet equally compelling, accounts. Jeffrey’s is predictably vibrant and engaging. And as Barbara said, one always learns something new and surprising, just goes on. And then in terms of Ben, thank you for your willingness to present, Ben, and also the opportunity to actually have a living relative. Your address to the main subject is a very, very unusual, especially for a historian. Everyone I deal with is long gone, and most of their relatives are long gone. So this in itself is a highly unusual.
I think it just added an element to this entire day, that we were very, very privileged to be a witness to. And Barbara, thank you very much for moderating the session. It’s much appreciated. What we’re going to do now is take a short break, 30 minutes, and then we will come back at 3 o’clock Berkeley time, that’s half an hour from now, wherever else you happen to be in the world. And we will then resume with our final session of the day. So once again, thank you the three of you for this. Much, much appreciated and lovely to see you all.
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