_Nature, God, or whatever you want to call the creator of the universe comes through the microscope clearly and strongly. Everything made by human hands looks terrible under magnification—crude, rough, and unsymmetrical. But in nature, every bit of life is lovely. And the more magnification we use, the more details are brought out, perfectly formed, like endless sets of boxes within boxes._—Roman Vishniac
Photographer Roman Vishniac brought out detail. His best-known work is _The Vanished World_, a book that captured the last records of European Jewry on the brink of the Holocaust. He turned to portraiture when he moved to New York in 1940; one of his most famous portraits is of Albert Einstein—memorable because it captures the details of Einstein’s face as he sits, deep in thought. Vishniac’s favorite sort of photography was photomicroscopy, microscopic images of grasshopper legs, firefly eyes, and cilia.
These sorts of images are now among the permanent collection of the International Center of Photography in New York. The ICP was founded in the 1950s as the International Fund for Concerned Photography. The effort was spearheaded by Cornell Capa after a series of untimely deaths: of his older brother Robert Capa, well-known photographer and founder of renowned photography cooperative Magnum Photos in a warzone of the First Indochina War; as well as colleagues like Werner Bischof, David Seymour, and Dan Weiner. The international sensitivity and humanitarian legacy of Cornell Capa and his immortalized heroes remain strong in today’s ICP. According to Maya Benton, head curator of the Vishniac archive, the aim is to place Vishniac within the context of his contemporaries, the founding “concerned photographers” in Capa’s mind when he organized the Fund.
This does not seem like too great a leap. _The Vanished World_ is a common book to find in Jewish households. This work, and other photographs of the period right before the Holocaust, are what gave Vishniac his fame. These images, often graphically disturbing in their depictions of the poverty, hunger, and persecution of Eastern European Jewish communities under Nazism, due to boycotts and pogroms, are accompanied by evocative titles such as “The Only Flowers of Her Youth.” Yet, as I discovered when I worked for Benton at the ICP’s Vishniac archive, these photographs were commissioned by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, a Jewish relief organization, to help raise money for the struggling Jews of Eastern Europe. Many of these images are in fact cropped versions of a total picture—a total picture which does not give off as gloomy an impression as the corner Vishniac crops and enlarges to create a picture for publication. A number of interns in the archive were in charge of reuniting the published images with the negatives that revealed their larger context.
These images were brought to the ICP by Maya Benton, director of the archive. She is an art historian and friend of Mara Vishniac, Roman’s daughter, who convinced Mara Vishniac to donate her large collection of her father’s work to a museum, in order to broaden public understanding of Vishniac’s legacy. Mara had proven reluctant in the past to lend out or donate her father’s work in the past, but Maya established enough rapport with Mara to convince her to entrust an archive with Vishniacs collection. They sought an appropriate venue to serve as a home for Visniac’s work, and eventually to exhibit it and renew Vishniac’s dwindling reputation and legacy. While the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. offered more money, they eventually chose the ICP, as a location that would create broader associations with Vishniac’s name than just his widely considered definition as a “Jewish photographer.” He was in fact much more personally connected to his other types of photography, especially photomicroscopy.
Vishniac was born in 1897 outside of St. Petersburg, and grew up in Moscow, where he lived until he was 21. He was homeschooled for the first 10 years of his life, and established his interest in biology and photography from that early age. At seven, his grandmother gave him a microscope, which he connected to a camera to take his first photograph, of a cockroach leg magnified 150x. He continued to look at even the tiniest elements of the world around him from underneath the lens of his microscope. Vishniac’s bedroom was crowded with plants in pots neighboring goldfish in bowls, lizards in terrariums, rabbits, and guinea pigs. In a 1954 _New Yorker_ interview, Vishniac explained that “[t]o me, the prettiest parts of the room were always those where there was a living plant or animal. I was fortunate in having many living things I could turn to, as a jeweler turns to his jewels.”
He showed great sensitivity and empathy with these plants and animals. The first and only time he went fishing, he recalled seeing the fish bleed after being caught on his hook, and he worried about it, as he knew his parents would worry if he were bleeding. Eventually he took it to his bedroom, and tried all sorts of medical techniques, even applying gauze on the wound, yet the fish died. Vishniac buried it in his backyard, and the memory remained with him. He continued his interest in zoology, eventually earning a Ph.D. in the subject at the Shanyavsky University in Moscow, and even becoming an assistant professor there in biology while still in his teens.
His family moved to Berlin in 1918, Vishniac with them. He soon married Leah Bagg, mother of Mara and her brother Wolf, and worked various jobs to support the new family and his parents. In his free time he studied Far Eastern art at the University of Berlin. He researched endocrinology and optics, gave speeches on naturalism, and did photography on the side. It was the latter hobby that landed him the job that made him most famous. From 1935-9, the American Joint Distribution Committee hired Vishniac to travel all around Eastern Europe photographing the poverty of Jewish life that was emerging as a result of anti-Semitic attitudes and boycotts. They hoped to raise money for these struggling communities by creating sympathy for the figures captured in the photographs.
Eventually the Vishniacs left Berlin, sensing the rising tides of anti-Semitism grow to a dangerous swell. In 1939, Leah and the children went to live with her parents in Sweden, while Vishniac remained in Berlin a little longer, and eventually moved in with his parents in Nice. In late summer 1940, Vishniac moved to Paris, where he was arrested by the Vichy police and sent to a deportation camp; his Latvian citizenship was no longer valid, as it had been absorbed by the Soviet Union. Eventually, with the help of the Joint Distribution Committee, he and his family were able to escape to the United States via Lisbon.
In New York, Vishniac lived on 81st and Broadway, where he established a portrait studio and tried unsuccessfully to earn a living through portrait photography. Despite his lack of success, he managed to capture images of many famous and seminal Jewish figures who moved to the U.S. He eventually turned the studio in a photomicroscopy lab. He tried to gain attention for the plight of European Jews during World War II, contacting both Eleanor and Franklin Delano Roosevelt with little success. Eventually Vishniac became a professor of biological education at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and a “Chevron Professor of Creativity” at the Pratt Institute. He also had stints at Case Western Reserve University and the City University of New York, where he taught about subjects such as Oriental art, Russian art, philosophy, religion in science, ecology, numismatics, photography, and general sciences. He collected a huge array of artifacts, including many works of ancient East Asian art, and antique microscopes, maps, and books. He also made a number of educational videos and documentaries.
Vishniac once observed in revelry: “Oh, what a variety of animals I can see in the contents of one Mason jar of pond wa- ter. One could take a trip around the world and not see as many kinds of animals or as many thrilling adventures as I see while I’m sitting in my chair before a microscope.” This describes both Vishniac’s great talent and his weakness. Vishniac preferred to see the world through a microscope while sitting in his chair—his cropping of the Jewish images, his photomiscroscopy and even his portraits demonstrate his preference for detail over the big picture. This talent and weakness has been translated into the structure of the Vishniac archive at the ICP as well.
While there, I researched the different figures Vishniac photographed once he reached New York, the seminal two-part New Yorker article on Vishniac by journalist Eugene Kinkead, and the economic boycotts of Jews which took place while he was traveling around Europe photographing. My work mostly sought to establish a context for Vishniac’s various work. Other researchers at the archive sorted his super-prolific collections of miscroscopy and the Jewish photographs, delved through the various sound files of the many lectures he gave throughout his life, and rephotographed his work for archival purposes. There is a lot of work to be done, and a key difficulty is procuring the funds necessary to finish. The general economic climate, and especially Bernie Madoff, have suppressed the activity of many prominent donors in the Jewish community, who would likely be interested in funding such an archive.
Nevertheless, Maya often leads potential donors through the room where the archival work takes place, showing them some of the most exciting finds from among the stacks upon stacks of images. The key part of establishing an archive is establishing order. Especially for artists so varied and prolific, one of the most difficult tasks is to know what you have. Maya Benton imagines creating a new sort of archive, one whose achievement extends far beyond its initial display and leaves no loose ends for the future. She wants to capture everything about Vishniac, if possible. Yet the challenge to such an approach is how difficult it can be to determine when the work ends, if ever.
Eventually the Nassau Weekly took Ruthie Nachmany to its bedroom and tried all sorts of medical techniques, even applying gauze on the wound, yet the fish died.