Roman Vishniac (1897-1990) photo-documentalist and humanist


Roman Vishniac holding his camera – Unidentified photographer. 1935-38

Roman Vishniac (1897-1990) is an american photographer or Russian origin. Versatile and multi-talented, Roman Vishniac is passionated about biology. He grew up in Moscow and became Dr. In Zoology and a biology teacher asistant.

It is only during the 1920’s, when he moved to Berlin that he will became an amateur photographer. Through his photographies he captures the dynamism of this modern and cosmopolitan city. He photographs tram drivers, newspapers distributers, students, the city parks, coffees.


Recalcitrance, Berlin – Roman Vishniac. 1929


People behind bars, Berlin zoo – Roman Vishniac. 1930

When the emergence of Nazism is becoming increasingly evident, he captures a portrait of Berlin, focusing his work on the sign of the arrival of terror. He starts photographing the new anti-Semitic and discriminatory measures . In 1933 a decree is published prohibiting Jewish photographers to take pictures in the streets. But, with the help of his daughter, Mara, he will keep on photographing.


Vishniac’s daughter posing in front of a shop specialized in instruments measuring the difference in size between Aryan and non-Aryan skulls – Berlin, 1933

In 1935, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee gives him the task of photographing the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe (Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Czechoslovakia, Romania) before the Holocaust. During four years, Vishniac will collect these photographies that will become famous and will leave an incredible photographic record of Jewish culture in the ghettos  and particularly the life of religious people and disadvantaged.


Elderly man – Roman Vishniac – 1939

The photos he took capture the daily lives of his selected subjects : elderly, children, merchants, rabbis. All deeply focused on their daily tasks take a moment of their time to look the focus and fix us in a very moving way. Reinforced by the black and white photography, the environment seems dark and cold, and the realism of his pictures make it more deep.


Sara seeting in bed in a basement dwelling, with stenciled flowers above her head, Warsaw – Roman Vishniac – 1935-37

For Vishniac, this wasn’t a simple testimony but a way to sensitize and raise awareness about the horrors that where committed. Roman Vishniac will even introduce himself illegally in a concentration camp and use later his photographies to prove the existence of those camps to the League of Nations.

These photographies are collected in his book A Vanished World published in the 80’s.


Jewish schoolchildren, Mukacevo – Roman Vishniac – 1935-38

He arrived in New York in 1941 and opened a photographic studio where he specialized in portraits. IT is during this time that he will take one of the most famous portraits of Albert Einstein, Marc Chagall and other celebrities. This will attract more and more customers like dancers, musicians, artists, intellectuals and scientists, all emigrants.


Albert Einstein in his office, Princeton University – Roman Vishniac – 1942


Marc Chagall, New York – Roman Vishniac, 1941

He also documents the lives of American Jews and immigrants who survived the war and started building a new life in the United States.


Sisters, refugees, shortly after their arrival in the US, Central Park New York – Roman Vishniac – 1941

In 1947 he returned to Europe as a US citizen. He photographed the displaced persons camps, the Holocaust survivors, the action of relief organization and Berlin in ruins.


The streets are free of brown battalions! – Roman Vishniac – 1947

Roman Vishniac is also known for his innovations in color photomicrography during the 50’s and 60’s. He specializes in photographing live insects moving and creates new photographies of the « infinitely small ».


Cross section of a pine needle – Roman Vishniac

His work is of great diversity, he produces many scientific films that will later be used by biology students. His work has been published in numerous scientific journal and are important data for researchers.

Nature has explained to me many things that books alone could not give me. Science and nature have given me the most interesting hours of my life.
—Roman Vishniac

Roman Vishniac is also recognized collector, a professor of history of art and a great speaker. At the end of his life, he taught in New York oriental art, Russian, philosophy, Science and Religion and photo-microscopic. Known for his respect for all life forms, Roman Vishniac can be called a great humanist photographer.


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