The poignant photographs of the shtetl by Roman Vishniac (published in his 1986 book, A Vanished World) very much shaped the cultural memories of the post-war generation. These images all resulted from the work Vishniac did between 1935 and 1939 on commission for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, who wished to use the photographs to raise money.
While Roman Vishniac’s greatest fame was the result of his photographs, he was actually a man of wide-ranging talents. (To read more about Vishniac’s photography, click here.) Born on August 19, 1897, to wealthy and influential parents (one of the few families permitted to reside in Moscow), Vishniac took an early interest in photography and biology, combining his two passions by photographing insects and other small living beings through his microscope. Vishniac earned a Ph.D. in Zoolog at the Shanyovsky Institute.
When, in 1918, to avoid the Russian instability, Vishniac’s family moved to Berlin, Vishniac followed. There he married his first wife, with whom he had two children. (They divorced in 1946.) He studied Far Eastern Art at the University of Berlin, as well as endocrinology, optics and photography, while also lecturing on naturalism for the Salamander Club.
After Vishniac’s wife and children left for Sweden in 1939, Vishniac himself went to France. In 1940, he was arrested in Paris and interned for being a stateless person. Three months later, Vishniac and his family were able to flee Europe on US visas obtained by his wife.
In New York, Vishniac struggled due to his lack of fluency in English. He did some portrait work (most famously, a portrait of Albert Einstein), but eventually settled into a career in photomicroscopy. Not only did he have a successful academic career, he also produced numerous important scientific films as well. Vishniac received Honorary Doctoral degrees from the Rhode Island School of Design, Columbia College of Art and the California College of Art.
Roman Vishniac died on January 22, 1990.
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