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Vishniac photos depict pre-WWII Jews, and more

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Photographer Roman Vishniac, whose works are on view at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, was best known for his images of Jewish life in Eastern Europe before World War II. (Courtesy International Center of Photography)

For decades, Roman Vishniac was recognized mainly for photographs he took of Eastern European Jewish life not long before the Nazis wiped it out. But recently discovered images reveal he was a multifaceted, major artist whose achievements extended far beyond his well-known 1930s catalog.

“Roman Vishniac Rediscovered,” a new exhibition at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, revisits Vishniac’s significant prewar work and introduces viewers to his additional notable contributions to photography. About 400 items — exhibition photographs, prints of recently discovered negatives, contact sheets and personal items — are in the comprehensive show organized by the International Center of Photography.

Born in 1897 into a Jewish family in Russia, Vishniac started taking pictures at age 7, when he received a camera for his birthday.

Combining it with another gift — a microscope — he photographed insects and other natural things. Thirteen years later, he moved to Berlin and took photos of urban life.

With its stark lighting, silhouetted figures and tone of alienation, an image he shot around 1929 of the interior of the Anhalter Bahnhof railway terminus demonstrates how avant-garde styles influenced his early work.

In the prewar years, Vishniac documented Jewish culture and the Nazis’ rise to power. Swastikas begin appearing in his street scenes. Photos of impoverished Jewish communities he shot from 1935 to 1939 for a project commissioned by the world’s largest Jewish relief organization have, to this day, distinguished him as a social documentarian and humanist.

Images feature a soup-kitchen worker, Jewish schoolchildren and a Polish boy with kindling in a basement dwelling.

A dramatic 1939 photo of Zionist youths building a school and foundry at the agrarian training camp in Wieringermeer, in the Netherlands, contains geometric elements that appear influenced by Russian constructivism. As with many of Vishniac’s Nazi-era subjects, history would deal this site and its residents a tragic hand.

In 1940, Vishniac moved to New York City and set up shop as a portrait photographer. His clients included Albert Einstein and Marc Chagall. As in Berlin, he took numerous pictures of his adopted home, capturing New York experiences ranging from nightclubs to Jewish delis.

After the war, Vishniac returned to Europe to document its devastated landscapes and the conditions facing Holocaust survivors. Images from this period include a 1947 shot of a Berlin boy standing on a mountain of rubble.

The scientific inclination Vishniac displayed as a 7-year-old never left the artist, who became a pioneer in the field of photomicroscopy. Slide-show images represent this final phase of his long and impressive career.

Works in the show are part of the International Center of Photography’s Roman Vishniac archive, which contains more than 30,000 objects.


Roman Vishniac Rediscovered
: Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission St., S.F.
When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily except until 8 p.m. Thursdays and closed Wednesdays; show closes May 29
Admission: $10 to $12
Contact: (415) 655-7800, www.thecjm.org