New York

Roman Vishniac

On the one hand, Roman Vishniac shows us images of “man,” in accordance with the exhibition’s title “Man, Nature, and Science, 1930–1985”—man in the form of pathetic, impoverished Jews in their East European shtetls, just before the Holocaust. A map shows us the locations of the places in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Poland where Vishniac documented “the vanishing lifestyles and traditions of his people.” The last of the images is of a terrified face on the evening of November 9, 1938, Kristallnacht. All these photographs are in black and white, and somewhere between hard and soft focus, giving the impression that we are looking at memory in the making. It is as if Vishniac were already in mourning, anticipating the inevitable.

These contrast vividly with his exquisite, large, color photographs of various microorganisms, insects, and living materials—the micrographic photographs that show him as a kind of adjunct scientist, at once analytically and tenderly studying life. Not all of these works are in color, but all show a loving attention to detail—an extraordinary sense of precision—and a fascination with life at its most elementary. Taken together, the two sides of Vishniac’s oeuvre—the one showing suffering and resignation to suffering, with death implicit, the other in the service of science, and bursting with life (the one about inhumane society, the other about the triumph of nature)—are a major allegorical statement of our dubious condition. We may be intellectually sophisticated, but we are emotionally primitive. Vishniac is an important philosopher of the embarrassing paradox of being human.

After photographing human beings he knew would be extinguished, and with whom he identified, he never photographed a human being again. He invested his mind and feeling—not that any of the shtetl photographs are sentimental (to be subliminally empathic is another matter)—in nonhuman life, as though to find out why it could survive and Jews not. Among the shtetl photographs are three that strike me as particularly telling of his photographic attitude. In one, the frame is filled entirely with a bookcase containing the books of Rabbi Hayyim Eleazer Shapira, taken in 1938 in Mukachevo. They have clearly been read again and again, by many generations, to the point of falling apart. The other, taken that same year in Slonim, is of a cheder. Three huge rows of old books, their covers falling off from eager use, loom over the Hasid rabbi studying with his students. Also in 1938 and in Mukachevo, a large bookcase stands behind Rabbi Baruch Rabinowitz in discussion with his students. These scenes of joyous study—reading and understanding the words of God was ecstasy for these Hasidim—contrast sharply with the street scenes (some of which depict a dignified rabbi selling herrings to survive) and the bleak interiors, with their meager, truly wretched contents, human and nonhuman. Vishniac’s photographic principle was simple: to treat people, and later insects and microorganisms, with the same inordinate respect as books, for anything alive is a word and omen of God, worth the reading and understanding.

Donald Kuspit