International Center of Photography, New York
Through May 5
A new master has stepped forward from the archives of the 20th century, said Liz Ronk in Time.com. Granted, photographer Roman Vishniac (1897–1990) wasn’t exactly an unknown before ICP pieced together this show of mostly unpublished images. A Vanished World, his 1983 book that collected images of the last years of European shtetllife, “has for decades held pride of place in countless Jewish homes.” But those images represented only a small fraction of the work Vishniac compiled over an astonishingly varied career, and the new evidence here suggests that it’s time to recognize him as “one of the great social documentarians” of his time. The chance to view his 1920s Berlin street photography, his Constructivist-style images of young Zionists, and his later photographs of brilliantly colored micro-organisms and chemical compounds will be “a revelation not only to the uninitiated, but to those who might have felt that they already knew all there was to know.”
Certainly Vishniac was “a photographer of wider scope, ambition, and accomplishment than anyone was aware of,” said William Meyers in The Wall Street Journal. The son of a wealthy Moscow umbrella manufacturer, he received both his first microscope and his first camera on his 7th birthday and never lost interest in either. In his early 20s, after moving to Germany in the wake of the Bolshevik revolution, he threw himself into street photography. Early examples “show his curiosity and humor,” but as the Nazis ascended, he found striking ways to let swastikas and other party propaganda creep into his street scenes. When this educated urbanite accepted an offer from a Jewish charity to photograph shtetl life, he was entering an alien world. Yet his sympathy for his subjects enriches every image.
He also possessed “an extremely sophisticated eye,” said Ariella Budick in the Financial Times. One image of a sleeping Polish porter is such a riot of textures and strong geometric forms that it “seems more appropriate to an avant-garde statement than to a charity flyer.” Even more revealing is this show’s version of one of Vishniac’s best-known images. In Cheder Boys, Carpathian Ruthenia, we see the ringlet-framed face of a young Hasid. When the picture appeared on the cover of one of Vishniac’s books, it was cropped tightly on the boy’s face, emphasizing the forbidding future awaiting this single innocent. Here, we instead see the boy “wedged in a crowd of noisy, toothy kids,” and this broader view is “moving in a different way”: It captures “the everyday exuberance of a complex society on the verge of cataclysm.”