Roman Vishniac

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Artists

Roman Vishniac, 1977photo by Andrew A. Skolnick
Roman Vishniac, 1977
photo by Andrew A. Skolnick
Roman and Edith Vishniac, 1977 photo by Andrew A. Skolnick
Roman and Edith Vishniac, 1977
photo by Andrew A. Skolnick

Roman Vishniac ['vɪʃniæk] (Russian: Роман Вишняк; August 19, 1897 – January 22, 1990) was a renowned Russian-American photographer, best known for capturing on film the culture of Jews in Central and Eastern Europe before the Holocaust.

Vishniac was an extremely diverse photographer, an accomplished biologist and a knowledgeable collector and teacher of art history. Throughout his life, he made significant scientific contributions to the fields of photomicroscopy and time-lapse photography. Vishniac was very interested in history, especially that of his ancestors. In turn, he was strongly tied to his Jewish roots and was a Zionist later in life.

Roman Vishniac won international acclaim for his photography: his pictures from the shtetlach and Jewish ghettos, celebrity portraits, and images of microscopic biology. He is known for his book A Vanished World, published in 1983, which was one of the first such pictorial documentations of Jewish culture in Eastern Europe from that period and also for his extreme humanism, respect and awe for life, sentiments that can be seen in all aspects of his work.


Early life

Roman was born in his grandparent's dacha outside of Saint Petersburg, in the town of Pavlovsk, and grew up in Moscow. To live in this city was a right granted to few Jews but Roman could live there because his father, Solomon Vishniac, was a wealthy manufacturer of umbrellas, and his mother, Manya, was the daughter of affluent diamond dealers (Roman also had a sister, Katja). During the summer months; however, the Vishniacs would leave: Moscow often became uncomfortably hot and the family would retreat to a dacha a few miles outside of that city.

As a child, Roman Vishniac was fascinated by biology and photography, and his room was filled with "plants, insects, fish and small animals". On his seventh birthday, Roman got a microscope from his grandmother, to which he promptly hooked up a camera, and by which he photographed the muscles in a cockroach's leg at 150 times magnification. Young Vishniac used this microscope extensively, viewing and photographing everything he could find, from dead insects to animal scales, to pollen and protozoa.

Until the age of ten, Vishniac was homeschooled; from ten to seventeen, he attended a private school at which he earned a gold medal for scholarship. Beginning in 1914, he spent six years at Shanyavsky Institute (now University) in Moscow. While enrolled there, he served in the Tsarist, Kerensky and Soviet armies. At the Institute, he earned a Ph.D. in zoology and became an assistant professor of biology. As a graduate student, he worked with prestigious biologist Nikolai Koltzoff, experimenting with inducing metamorphosis in axolotl, a species of aquatic salamander. While his experiments were a success, Dr. Vishniac was not able to publish a paper detailing his findings due to the chaos in Russia and his results were eventually independently duplicated. In spite of this, he went on to take a three year course in medicine.


In 1918, Roman Vishniac's immediate family moved to Berlin because of anti-Semitism spurred by the Third Russian Revolution. Roman followed them and, shortly after arriving, married Luta (Leah) Bagg, who gave birth to two children, Mara and Wolf. Roman Vishniac supported his own budding family (and sometimes his parents as well) by working at various jobs. In his free time, he studied Far Eastern Art at the University of Berlin. Vishniac researched endocrinology, optics, and did some photography (see right). In Berlin, he also initiated his public speaking career by joining the Salamander Club, at which he often gave lectures on naturalism.

In the 1930s, as anti-Semitism was growing in Germany, Vishniac took his famed trips to Eastern Europe, photographing the culture of poor Jews in mountainous villages and urban ghettos. For approximately 4 years, (the exact period is debated), he would travel back and forth from Berlin to remote locations, taking thousands of pictures and living with whomever would take him in, at the same time supporting his family in Berlin. In 1939, Roman's wife and children moved to Sweden to stay with Luta's parents, away from hostile Germany. He met up with his parents in Nice that summer.

Roman Vishniac returned to Paris in late summer 1940, and was arrested by the Pétain police and interned at Camp du Ruchard, a deportation camp in Clichy, France. This occurred because Latvia, where he had had his citizenship, had been subsumed into the Soviet Union and Vishniac was considered a "stateless person". After 3 months, as a result of his wife's efforts and aid from the American Joint Distribution Committee, he obtained a visa that allowed him to escape via Lisbon to the U.S. with his family. His father stayed behind and spent the war hidden in France; his mother died from cancer in 1941 while still in Nice.

New York

The Vishniac family fled from Lisbon to New York City in 1940, arriving on New Year's Eve. Vishniac tried for days to get a job but failed: "For me, it was a time of distraction and fear." Vishniac struggled. He was multilingual, speaking at least German, Russian and Yiddish, but he could speak no English yet and thus had a difficult time. He managed to do some portraiture work with mostly foreign clients; but business was poor. It was during this time, in 1942, that Roman took one of his most celebrated portraits, that of Albert Einstein. Vishniac arrived at Einstein's home in Princeton, New Jersey, getting into the scientist's study with the ruse of bringing regards from mutual friends in Europe, and photographed him while the scientist was not paying attention to him, occupied in thought. Einstein later called this portrait his favourite one of him. In 1946, Roman Vishniac divorced Luta, and the next year he married Edith Ernst, an old family friend. A few years later, he gave up portraiture and went on to do freelance work in the field of photomicroscopy.

Once in the United States, Roman Vishniac tried desperately to earn sympathy for impoverished Jews in Eastern Europe. When his work was exhibited at Teachers College, Columbia University in 1943, Vishniac wrote to Eleanor Roosevelt ( First Lady at the time), asking her to visit the exhibit, but she did not do so. He also sent some of his photographs to the president for which he was politely thanked.

Of the 16,000 taken in Eastern Europe by Roman Vishniac, only 2,000 photographs reached America. Most of these negatives were carefully hidden by Roman and his family; others were smuggled in by Vishniac's good friend Walter Bierer through Cuba. In the photographer's own words,

Roman Vishniac
I sewed some of the negatives into my clothing when I came to the United States in 1940. Most of them were left with my father in Clermont-Ferrand, a small city in central France. He survived there, hidden. He concealed the negatives under floorboards and behind picture frames.
Roman Vishniac

Later life

Roman Vishniac, c. 1981
Roman Vishniac, c. 1981

Even when he grew older, Roman Vishniac was very active. In 1957, he was appointed research associate at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and in 1961 ascended to the rank of " professor of biological education". In his seventies and eighties, Vishniac became "Chevron Professor of Creativity" at Pratt Institute (where he taught courses on topics such as the philosophy of photography). During this time he lived on the West Side of Manhattan with his wife Edith, teaching, photographing, reading and collecting artifacts. Some items that were in his collection include a 14th-century Buddha, Chinese tapestries, Japanese swords, various antique microscopes, valued old maps and venerable books). He taught Oriental and Russian art, general philosophy and religion in science, specifically Jewish topics, ecology, numismatics, photography and general science at City University of New York, Case Western Reserve University and at various other institutions.

During the course of his life, Vishniac was the subject and creator of many films and documentaries; the most celebrated of which was the Living Biology series. The series consisted of seven films on cell biology; organs and systems; embryology; evolution; genetics; ecology; botany; the animal world; and the microbial world. This production was funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation's.

Roman Vishniac received Honorary Doctoral degrees from the Rhode Island School of Design, Columbia College of Art and the California College of Art, before he died from colon cancer on January 22, 1990.


In Central and Eastern Europe


Vishniac is best known for his dramatic photographs of Jews in cities and shtetlach of Eastern Europe. He was commissioned to take these pictures initially by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee as part of a fundraising initiative; but, Vishniac took a personal interest in this photography. He traveled back and forth from Berlin to the ghettos of Russia, Poland, Romania, Czechoslovakia and Lithuania for years after he worked for the Committee.

While touring Europe, Roman Vishniac posed as a traveling fabric salesman, seeking aid where he could and bribing anyone who got in his way. During his touring of Eastern Europe (1935-1939), he was often arrested by police for taking these pictures, sometimes because he was thought to be spying, (Jews were not allowed to take pictures or even carry cameras). Later, when published, these photographs made him popular enough for his work to be showcased as one-man shows at Columbia University, the Jewish Museum, ICP and other such institutions.

Vishniac, being a Jew, had to struggle immensely to take the 16,000 photos he did. Every one of his photos from this period was a candid shot; the subjects never even knew his camera existed. He also could not take more than one shot of a scene or buy two rolls of film at a time because he was not of Aryan descent. Vishniac sometimes developed his film in Berlin, other times he was forced to do it out on the countryside, in rivers of the Carpathian Mountains on a moonless night.

In order to reach some of the small villages in these mountains, he had to carry heavy equipment (Leica, Rolliflex, movie camera, tripods etc.), 115  pounds (52 kilograms) by his estimate, on his back, up steep roads, trekking many miles. With a concealed Leica wrapped in a scarf at his forehead or a Rolleiflex peeking out through an enlarged button hole of his coat, Vishniac captured tens of thousands of impoverished Jews on film, "[...] to preserve – in pictures, at least – a world that might soon cease to exist". This Leica was acquired through a non-Jewish friend, but he had to give the camera back often (the police were trying to make sure that no Jews were using the camera, and they usually checked with his friend in the evenings).

For indoor shots, when the Leica was used, there was the problem of insufficient lighting: there would rarely be artificial light in the home of a poor Jew. Vishniac could not use a tripod (for the camera had to remain concealed) to get long exposures, so he had to bring a kerosene lantern (visible in some of his work), keep his back to a wall for support, and hold his breath. The Rolleiflex was used mostly for outdoor scenes.

Roman Vishniac did not just want to preserve the memories of the Jews; he actively fought to increase awareness in the West of the worsening situation in Eastern Europe. "Through his photographs, he sought to alert the rest of the world to the horrors [of the Nazi persecution]", Mitgang. In late 1938, for example, he sneaked into Zbaszyn, an internment camp in Germany near the border, where Jews awaited deportment to Poland. After photographing the "filthy barracks", as he described it, for two days, he escaped by jumping from the second floor at night and creeping away, avoiding broken glass and barbed wire. He then used photographs taken to prove the existence of such camps to the League of Nations.

After Roman's death, more photographs were discovered, and the current exhibit in Berlin showcases such newly discovered photographs. The negatives of these were found at the end of rolls of film used by him in his scientific pursuits.


Vishniac's photographs from the 1930s are all of a very distinct style; they are all focused on achieving the same end: capturing the unique culture of Jewish ghettos in Eastern Europe. His pictures all centre on these people, usually in small groups, going about their daily lives: very often studying (generally religious texts), walking (many times through harsh weather), and sometimes just sitting; staring. The scenes are dramatic though: "There is barely a hint of a smile on any of the faces. The eyes peer at us suspiciously from behind ancient casement windows and over a peddler's tray, from crowded schoolrooms and desolate street corners." Gene Thornton, writer for The New York Times, called them "[...] somber with poverty and with the gray light of European Winter".

These pictures, all in black and white, were done with available light or sometimes a lantern, yet they are still, "amazingly crisp with surprising depth of field". Indeed, "There is a grainy realism to Vishniac's photographic style. We can almost finger the coarse textures of coats and shawls; the layers of fabric worn by the people seem more related to tree bark than to the well-pressed wool suit worn by an occasional elegant passerby."


Vishinac's photographs from this period are widely commended and on permanent display in many museums. Edward Steichen places Roman Vishniac's pre-Holocaust photographs, "among photography's finest documents of a time and place."' However, there has been criticism of Vishniac's work, focusing on the lack of diversity of his subjects in his work from Eastern Europe and quality of his composition. It has been argued that he should have also photographed wealthier Jews, in addition to the poor Jews in ghettos. Thornton criticized his photographs for their unprofessional qualities, citing "errors of focus and accidents of design, as when an unexplained third leg and foot protrudes from the long coat of a hurrying scholar."

Vishniac's photographs have had a profound effect on Holocaust literature and have illustrated many books about the Jewish ghettos and Holocaust. In the case of The Only Flowers of her Youth, the drama of the photograph inspired Miriam Nerlove to write a fictional novel based on the story of the girl in the picture.

For this work, Roman Vishniac has received the Memorial Award of the American Society of Magazine Photographers in 1956. He was also the winner of the visual arts category of awards of the Jewish Book Council in 1984; The Only Flowers of her Youth was deemed "most impressive" at the International Photographic Exhibition in Lucerne in 1952; and the Grand Prize for Art in Photography, New York Coliseum.

Photomicroscopy and biology

In addition to the candid photography for which he is best known, Vishniac worked heavily in the field of photomicroscopy, (specifically interference microscopy and cinemicroscopy). He specialized in photographing live subjects, rather than the usual dead ones and had a knack for arranging the moving specimens in "just the right poses", according to Philipee Halsman, former president of the American Society of Magazine Photographers. On the subject of Vishniac's skill in photomicroscopy, Halsman said he was, "a special kind of genius". He worked with all sorts of specimens, from protozoa, to fireflies to amino acids. Vishniac's work in photomicroscopy is and was highly regarded in the field. For three consecutive years, beginning in 1952, he won the Best-of-the-Show Award of the Biological Photographic Association in New York.

One of Roman Vishniac's most famous endeavors in the field of photomicroscopy was his revolutionary photographs from the inside of a firefly's eye, behind 4,600 tiny ommatidia, complexly arranged. In addition, there were the images taken at the medical school of Boston University of the circulating blood inside a hamster's cheek pouch. Vishniac invented new methods for light-interruption photography and colour photomicroscopy. His method of colorization, (developed in the 1960s and early 1970s) uses polarized light to penetrate certain formations of cell structure and may greatly improve the detail of an image.

In the field of biology, Vishniac specialized in marine microbiology, the physiology of ciliates, circulatory systems in unicellular plants and endocrinology (from his work in Berlin) and metamorphosis. Despite his apitude and accomplishments in the field, most of his work in biology was secondary to his photography: Vishniac studied the anatomy of an organism primarily to better photograph it. Besides experimenting with the metamorphosis of axolotl, he also researched the morphology of chromosomes in 1920: both in Berlin. As a biologist and philosopher in 1950, he hypothesized polyphyletic origin, a theory that life arose from multiple, independent biochemical reactions, spawning multicellular life. As a philosopher, he "developed principles of rationalistic philosophy" in the '50s.

Other photography

Vishniac is notable for his photographs of insects mating, sea bass feasting and other living creatures in full animation. Skillfully and patiently, Vishniac would stalk insects or other such creatures for hours in the suburbs around New York City. Before beginning the hunt, he would lie for over an hour in the grass, rubbing himself with proximate flora to make himself smell less artificial. Vishniac would then gracefully swoop close to his prey and patiently frame the scene with an SLR equipped with an extension tube. He had even trained himself to hold his breath for up to two minutes, so that he could take his time and not disturb slowly exposing images.

Roman's subjects varied throughout his life. At times, he would focus on documenting everyday life, as in Berlin, and later portraiture, doing famous portraits of Albert Einstein and Marc Chagall. He was also a pioneer in time-lapse photography, on which he worked from 1915 to 1918, and again later in life.

Religion and philosophy

Roman Vishniac always had strong ties with his ancestry, especially the Jewish aspect of it, "From earliest childhood, my main interest was my ancestors". He was a Zionist and a strong sympathizer with Jews who had suffered because of anti-Semitism, "Oh yes, I could be a professor of anti-Semitism", also stating then that he had one hundred and one relatives who died during the Holocaust. A famous photo of his (pictured right) of a store in Berlin selling devices for separating Jews and non-Jews by skull shape was used by him to criticize the pseudoscience of German anti-Semites.

Vishniac associated much of his work with religion, though not specifically Judaism. "Nature, God, or whatever you want to call the creator of the Universe comes through the microscope clearly and strongly," he remarked in his laboratory one day.

Living with the memory of hardship, Vishniac was, "an absolute optimist filled with tragedy. His humanism is not just for Jews, but for every living thing." While he was alive, Roman probably believed in God or some similar concept, but he was non-denominational and did not adhere strictly to the principles of any religion. He even clashed with Orthodox Jews in one well-known instance: The religious Jews he met on his trek around Europe would not let themselves be photographed, quoting the Bible and its prohibition of making of graven images. Vishniac's famous response was, "the Torah existed for thousands of years before the camera had been invented."

Roman Vishniac was known for having great respect for all living creatures. Whenever possible, he returned a specimen to its precise home before it was captured and one time lent, "his bathtub to tadpoles for weeks until he could return them to their pond". In accordance with this philosophy, he photographed almost exclusively living subjects.


Year Title Notes Source
1947 Polish Jews: A Pictorial Record Polish Jews showcased 31 images of the life and character of these people "stressing the spiritual side of the subjects' lives and [...] it did not include any of the pictures [Roman Vishniac] took to emphasize the economic struggle in which the Jews were engaged."; Essay by Abraham Joshua Heschel.
1947 *Die Farshvundene Velt: Idishe shtet, Idishe mentshn.

*The Vanished World: Jewish Cities , Jewish People

Edited by Rafeal Abramovitch; title, text and captions in English and Yiddish; includes photographs by R. Vishniac, A. Kacyzna, M. Kipnis and others. First edition of the earliest and most comprehensive graphic pictorial history of Jewish life at the beginning of the Nazi era.
1955 Spider, Egg and Microcosm: Three Men and Three Worlds of Science Published by Eugene Kinkead; The three men were Petrunkevitch, Romanoff and Vishniac
1956 This Living Earth (Nature Program) Published by N. Doubleday
1957 Mushrooms (Nature Program) Prepared with the cooperation of the National Audubon Society; Published by N. Doubleday; Library of Congress Control #: 57003046 and 66006050
1959 Living earth Drawings by Louise Katz; Subject: Soil biology
1969 A Day of Pleasure : Stories of a Boy Growing Up in Warsaw Written by Isaac Bashevis Singer
1971 Building Blocks of Life: Proteins, Vitamins, and Hormones Seen Through the Microscope Published by Charles Scribner's Sons
1972 The Concerned Photographer 2 Grossman Publishers; Edited by Cornell Capa, text by Michael Edelson; In cooperation with ICP
1974 Roman Vishniac of the ICP Library of Photographers
1983 A Vanished World Foreword by Elie Wiesel; This version is significantly different from the original version, 1947, being completely redone and with many fewer photographs. This is probably the most well-known collection of Vishniac's and has independently contributed most to his popularity.
1985 Roman Vishniac by Darilyn Rowan, published at Arizona State University School of Art.
1993 To Give them Light: The Legacy of Roman Vishniac Biographical note by Mara Vishniac Kohn, , edited by Marion Wiesel
1999 Children of a Vanished World Edited by Mara Vishniac Kohn and Hartman Flacks
2005 Roman Vishniac's Berlin Edited by James Howard Fraser, Mara Vishniac Kohn and Aubrey Pomerance for Jewish Museum Berlin

Major exhibitions

Year Location Notes Source
1943 Teacher's College, Columbia University, New York One-man show of photographs of impoverished Eastern European Jews
1962 IBM Gallery, New York One-man show; "Through the Looking Glass"
1971 The Jewish Museum, New York "The Concerns of Roman Vishniac"; The first comprehensive showing of Vishniac's work, produced by ICP
1972 - 1973 Art Gallery of the University at Albany, The State University of New York; The Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.; New Jersey Public Library, Fair Lawn; Kol Ami Museum, Los Angeles; Judaica Museum, Phoenix "The Concerns of Roman Vishniac" circulated around the U.S.A. by ICP. Note that this exhibit was probably a continuation of the last one at the Jewish Museum; however, it is listed as a separate production in Roman Vishniac
1993 International Centre of Photography, New York "Man, Nature, and Science, 1930-1985"
2001 Spertus Museum, Chicago 50 of Vishniac’s photographs from Roman Vishniac Children of a Vanished World; Mara Vishniac Kohn guest speaker
2005 Jewish Museum Berlin Title: "Roman Vishniac's Berlin"; exhibiting 90 images, some never before seen by the public.
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