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Jewish HistoryPhotography

Roman Vishniac Rediscovered

Feb 11, 2016–May 30, 2016

Roman Vishniac (1897–1990), an extraordinarily versatile and innovative photographer, created the most widely recognized photographic record of Jewish life in Eastern Europe between the two World Wars. This exhibition introduces recently discovered and radically diverse new bodies of work and repositions Vishniac's iconic photographs of Eastern Europe within the broader tradition of 1930s commissioned social documentary photography. Organized by the International Center of Photography, New York.


Born in Russia in 1897 to an affluent Jewish family, Roman Vishniac grew up in Moscow. After pursuing graduate degrees in biology and zoology, he immigrated to Berlin in 1920 in the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution. As an amateur photographer he took to the streets, offering witty visual commentary on day-to-day life in his adopted city. This prodigious body of early work reflects the influence of European modernism and an avant-garde approach to framing and composition.

Vishniac’s development as a professional photographer coincided with the Nazi rise to power, and he tenaciously documented the ominous changes he encountered—images of campaign posters, swastika banners, and marching soldiers dominate work from this era. As restrictions on Jewish photographers increased, he was commissioned to document the work of several Jewish community and social-service organizations in Berlin. In 1935, he was hired by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC)—the world’s largest Jewish relief organization—to photograph impoverished Jewish communities in Central and Eastern Europe as part of the organization’s effort to raise funds and support. Vishniac’s four years of work on the project yielded the celebrated images that have largely defined his photographic legacy.

Following a brief period of internment in France, Vishniac arrived in New York in 1941 and opened a portrait studio to support his family. Throughout the 1940s, Vishniac continued to chronicle the impact of World War II while working to establish himself in the fields of science and photomicroscopy, or photography through the microscope. He photographed the war-relief efforts of Chinese Americans in New York; he documented the arrival of Jewish refugees and Holocaust survivors; and he followed American Jewish life throughout the 1940s and 50s. In 1947, he returned to Europe to document relief efforts in Jewish Displaced Persons camps and the ruins of his former hometown, Berlin.

Photomicroscopy became Vishniac’s primary focus for the last 45 years of his life. By the mid-1950s, Vishniac had established himself as a pioneer in the field, developing sophisticated techniques for photographing and filming microscopic life forms. His scientific photography appeared in hundreds of magazine and journal articles and on dozens of covers. One of Vishniac’s most famous endeavors in the field was his revolutionary photographs from the inside of a firefly’s eye.

gallery photos

From his earliest years as a biology and zoology student in Moscow, Vishniac pursued his lifelong passion for photomicroscopy. His innovative use of polarized light and high magnification allowed him to capture unique images of the microscopic world. By the mid-1950s, Vishniac had established himself as a pioneer in the field and was regularly commissioned by government agencies, scientists, and institutions to document and research microorganisms and biological phenomena. In this slideshow on the International Center for Photography's website, you can view a selection of Vishniac's scientific work and photomicroscopy from the early 1950s to the late 1970s.


Roman Vishniac Rediscovered is organized by the International Center of Photography. It is made possible with support from Mara Vishniac Kohn, whose generosity founded the Roman Vishniac Archive at ICP, and from the Andrew and Marina Lewin Family Foundation, Estanne and Martin Fawer, the David Berg Foundation, the Righteous Persons Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Olitsky Family Foundation, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, the ICP Exhibitions Committee, James and Merryl Tisch, the Koret Foundation, and numerous additional donors.

The CJM’s presentation is made possible by Patron sponsorship from Baird, Gaia Fund, Maribelle and Stephen Leavitt, Nellie and Max Levchin, Julie and David Levine, the Righteous Persons Foundation, Dorothy R. Saxe, the Seiger Family Foundation, the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life and Culture, and Wendy and Richard Yanowitch. Supporting sponsorship has been provided by Phyllis Cook, Rosanne and Al Levitt, Joyce Linker, and Howard and Barbara Wollner. Additional support has been provided by Richard Nagler and Sheila Sosnow, and Esther and Barry Sherman.

Major support for The Contemporary Jewish Museum’s exhibitions and Jewish Peoplehood Programs comes from the Koret Foundation.

Image Credit

Header image: Roman Vishniac, [Jewish schoolchildren, Mukacevo], ca. 1935–38. Gelatin silver print. © Mara Vishniac Kohn, courtesy International Center of Photography. Gallery photos: Installation views of Roman Vishniac Rediscovered by JKA Photography; additional gallery photographs by Gary Sexton Photography.