Roman Vishniac Rediscovered

By Peggy Roalf   Thursday February 25, 2016

Roman Vishniac Rediscovered, 
organized by the International Center of Photography (ICP), is currently on view at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. Vishniac (1897–1990) created the most widely recognized and reproduced photographic record of Jewish life in eastern Europe between the two World Wars. In fact, it was these photographs that informed the development and filming of Steven Spielbberg’s film, Schindler’s List.

The exhibition is organized by Curator Maya Benton who said, “Vishniac is responsible for taking the most widely recognized and reproduced photographic record of Jewish life in Eastern Europe on the eve of its annihilation, and yet this was only four years in a career that spanned 60 years of surprising stylistic range.”  

The retrospective is drawn from the Vishniac archive of 50,000 objects, including 10,000 negatives, held at ICP in New York. ICP, in collaboration with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, has made the entire Vishniac collection available online at

Above: Antisemitic demonstration by members of Poland's right-wing nationalist party giving the Nazi salute, Jewish district of Warsaw Left: Vishniac’sdaughter Mara posing in front of an election poster for Hindenburg and Hitler that reads “the Marshal and the corporal: Fight with Us for peace and equal rights,” Wilmersdorf, Berlin. Photographs © Mara Vishniac Kohn, courtesy International Center of Photography.

In the course of studying the Vishniac archive, which includes over 50,000 items, including negatives, contact sheets, and ephemera, Benton discovered inconsistencies between previously published information about the photos, largely through notations by the photographer—and factual information found in the archive. Benton’s achievement as a scholar piecing together discordant information is covered in detail by Lew Schwartz, writing for ASX. Info

Based on Benton’s research, this exhibition introduces recently discovered and radically diverse new bodies of work by Vishniac, and repositions his iconic photographs of eastern Europe within the broader tradition of 1930s commissioned social documentary photography. 

Roman Vishniac Rediscovered continues through May 29 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission Street, San Francisco, CA.