Sunday, February 21, 2016

Roman Vishniac: Retrospective In San Franscisco

Pre-WWII Europe

Roman Vishniac [1897–1990]: Inside the Anhalter Bahnhof railway terminus near Potsdamer Platz, Berlin, Germany, 1929–early 1930s. Ink-jet print. 
Photo Credit: © Mara Vishniac Kohn. Courtesy International Center of Photography, NYC.
Source: Aesthetica

Roman Vishniac was born in Russia (near Saint-Petersburg) in 1897, moving with his family to Berlin around 1920 to escape the harsh realities of the Russian Revolution. Again, in the midst of war and upheaval, he immigrated to America, arriving in New York City on New Year’s Eve, 1940. Vishniac is credited with capturing—through photos—a world of east-European Jews, or at least his understanding and interpretation of it.

Commissioned by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, Vishniac, between 1935 and 1938, travelled eastward from his home base of Berlin to the centres of Jewish life in Poland, Romania, Czechoslovakia and Lithuania, where he took thousands of photos. Vishniac is best known for A Vanished World (1983) with a foreword by Elie Wiesel, capturing many of the everyday realities of religious Jews, the photos depicting economic poverty and hardships, having a combined effect of symbolizing shtetl life.

Vishniac’s artistic endeavors, poignant and powerful as they are, have received their fair share of criticism, including a well-written and -researched piece by Alana Newhouse (2010) in The New York Times Magazine. A good part of the criticism is that the photos depict a narrow view of life in eastern Europe, supporting the mythology found in Sholem Aleichem’s novels and in the Broadway musical (1964) and Hollywood movie (1971), Fiddler on the Roof.

Yet, these are stylized stories, and as such cannot be taken as historical reality. Nostalgia is not the same as history, even though the former tends to have a hold on our imagination, enlivened by the human need for myths. Jewish life, however, has always been diverse; in the NYT article, Newhouse writes:
“Jews should be absolutely elated — and not at all surprised — to discover that Jewish life in Poland was like human society anywhere, in that it contained all the human types and all of the human experiences,” Wieseltier, the New Republic literary editor, says. “Will they resent being deprived by the full historical record of the holy beards and the mystical sparks, or will they have the wisdom to say, ‘Good, they were blessedly like all of us’?” 
So it continues today. This is not to deny that Vishniac’s photos do deserve a place of recognition, but knowing that he took artistic license in pursuit of the greater narrative: the threats to continuity in the face of upheaval and change. As the International Center of Photography in New York City says: “More than any other photographer, Roman Vishniac’s images have profoundly influenced contemporary notions of Jewish life in eastern Europe. Vishniac created the most widely recognized and reproduced photographic record of that world on the eve of its annihilation, yet only a small fraction of his work was published or printed during his lifetime.”

Roman Vishniac Rediscovered: at The Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco until May 29, 2016.

For more, go to [TheCJM].