Reframing Roman Vishniac's legacy.

Author:Bolz, Diane M.
Position:VISUAL MOMENT: PHOTOGRAPHY
 
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Maya Benton was a high school senior living in Los Angeles when the Russian-American photographer Roman Vishniac's first posthumous book, To Give Them Light, came out in 1993. Renowned for his iconic images of Eastern European Jews taken between the two World Wars, Vishniac had died three years earlier at age 92. One particular photograph in the volume struck a powerful chord with Benton's family. "The Photograph," as Benton (now a curator at New York City's International Center of Photography) calls it in her introduction to the recently published, 384-page monograph Roman Vishniac Rediscovered, depicted a lone signpost. It was one of the thousands of images taken by the photographer from 1935 to 1938 on an assignment to document Jewish life in Eastern Europe. Among the various signs mounted on the post was one that read "Nowogrodek"--the town from which Benton's grandparents had fled in 1941, when it was overrun by the Nazis.

The publication of that image marked the beginning of Benton's engagement with Vishniac's work. It was an interest she pursued while a graduate student at Harvard and one that ultimately led her to an extensive archive of Vishniac's photographs in the possession of his daughter, Mara Vishniac Kohn. That trove--some 50,000 items, including vintage prints, rare film footage, contact sheets, personal correspondence and nearly 10,000 negatives--was subsequently acquired by the International Center of Photography (ICP). Benton's research in that archive led to the center's exhibition "Roman Vishniac Rediscovered," which premiered in 2013 and is now on view through May 29 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. Benton curated the show and edited the comprehensive monograph.

The exhibition, she says, embodies a reappraisal of Vishniac's total body of work--from his Berlin street photography of the 1920s and early 1930s, through his portraiture and documentary images of the postwar period in America, to his groundbreaking efforts in color photomicroscopy (photography through a microscope) of the 1950s to 1970s. A versatile, prolific and innovative photographer whose career spanned more than five decades, Vishniac brought his Rolleiflex and Leica cameras, along with his eye for bold composition, to such diverse subjects as stylish pedestrians on cosmopolitan streets, Orthodox Jews in rural villages, performers in New York nightclubs and children in displaced persons camps. For those who are familiar only with...

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