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BCA News: Spring 2016

Roman Vishniac (1897-1990) The Inquisitive MicroscopistRoman Vishniac (1897-1990)
The Inquisitive Microscopist

by Norman Barker

All photographs by Roman Vishniac are © Mara Vishniac Kohn, courtesy International Center of Photography.

Some BCA members might recognize the name of Roman Vishniac. If you attended high school in the sixties and seventies, you probably viewed some his biology films in science class.

He received a grant from the National Science Foundation to produce a series of films, many with segments of live organism under the microscope with eloquent and informative narration. He was one of the top scientific photographers of the day, along with Fritz Goro, who at the time worked for Life Magazine. Unlike Goro, Vishniac was a freelance science photographer for most of his career. In the fifties and sixties he was very active in the Water Flea (1974), Roman VishniacBiological Photographers Association and won several "Best of Show" awards in the BPA salon with his beautiful images of live specimens, captured under the microscope. He was also recognized as a Fellow of the BPA for his contributions and craftsmanship with his microscopy technique of imaging live protozoa on both 16mm motion picture and still capture.

Vishniac had a long and varied more than sixty-year career as a photographer and cinemicroscopist. Most people recognize and associate the name Roman Vishniac as the photographer who documented the lives of Eastern European Jews in Poland and the Carpathian Mountains from ca. 1935-1938. His powerful photographs are a lasting document of Jewish life in Eastern Europe – in the cities and towns with significant Jewish populations, as well as small villages, or shtetls – where Jews lived for centuries. His photographs documented a way of life that was lost because of the Nazis and the 2nd World War. He published several books and probably his most notable is A Vanished World with a forward by Elie Wiesel.

Roman Vishniac RediscoveredVishniac's archive of work resides in the collection of The International Center of Photography in New York. On October 25, 2015 there was day-long Conference at The Center for Jewish History in New York. The symposium was organized in conjunction with the publication of Roman Vishniac: Rediscovered, by Maya Benton (co‑published by the International Center of Photography and DelMonico-Prestel Books, (ISBN: 978‑3‑7913‑5395‑1). Scholars, photography curators, and cultural critics came together to reappraise Vishniac's radically diverse body of work that spans the 1920s through the 1970s. This first retrospective monograph on Roman Vishniac offers many new perspectives on the work and career of this important photographer, positioning him as one of the great modernists and social documentary photographers of the last century.

The book along with an international traveling exhibition was drawn from the International Center of Photography's vast holdings of work by Roman Vishniac. This beautifully illustrated and expansive volume offers a new and profound consideration of this key modernist photographer. In addition to featuring Vishniac's best-known work—the iconic images of Jewish life in Eastern Europe before the Holocaust— the publication also introduces many previously unpublished photographs spanning more than six decades of Vishniac's work. These include newly discovered images of prewar Berlin, rare film footage from rural Jewish communities in Carpatheina Ruthenia, documentation of postwar ruins and Displaced Persons' camps, and vivid coverage of Jewish life in America in the 1940s and '50s. Vishniac was a documentarian as well as a story-teller, who sometime took liberties with the truth.

Underwater Tube Worm, Roman VishniacVishniac's first love was science and even though his photomicrography of live specimens was extremely novel for the time, his use of moving pictures to observe behaviors that had never been captured with the microscope is truly amazing. After emigrating from Europe to America in 1941, Vishniac continued his scientific researches and had a successful career doing scientific photography for corporate clients like IBM, Westinghouse, and Pfizer as for magazines like Life, OMNI, and Popular Photography.

Central core root tissue, Roman Vishniac
Cross section club moss rhizome, Roman Vishniac
Portuguese man-of-war, Roman Vishniac


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