Roman Vishniac General

The International Center of Photography (ICP) in New York City houses the Roman Vishniac Archive, which primarily includes Vishniac’s renowned photographs of Jewish ghettos in Eastern Europe taken between 1935-1938. The collection also includes Vishniac’s studio portraits from the 1940s (most famous are his portraits of Einstein and Chagall), his microscopic images of cells, insects, and animals from the 1950s and 1960s, and photographic portraits of Vishniac created by other artists.

After Roman Vishniac died in 1990, his photographs were haphazardly disseminated to three major locations. 1/3 of the prints were donated to ICP, 1/3 of the prints were given to the Howard Greenberg Gallery, and 1/3 of the prints remained in Mara Vishniac Kohn’s (Vishniac’s daughter) private storage in Santa Barbara. Mara Vishniac Kohn currently manages the Vishniac estate and owns the copyright for all of his work. She has been collaborating with ICP curator Maya Benton to preserve her father’s legacy by creating a comprehensive archive of Vishniac's entire body of work, including negatives, contact sheets, thousands of unpublished prints, as well as personal correspondences and ephemera.

Maya Benton and Mara Vishniac have therefore taken an innovative approach to constructing a reciprocity-structured archive. All Vishniac material has been recalled to ICP, and a hold on the sale of prints has been implemented in order to create the ICP Vishniac archive from scratch. Extensive research on all on all of the prints, negatives, and contact sheets is being done—80% of the negatives were originally missing from ICP, and now only 10-20% are missing. I have been working with the staff at ICP to create a custom database in order to catalogue the material and to provide a method to properly compare and identify images. After all the images have been scanned and recorded in the database, the collection will be redistributed under Mara Vishniac’s guidance to several institutions.

This unique opportunity to create a complete archive of a single artist’s work has great promise for historians and those interested in photography and art history who wish to understand Vishniac’s oeuvre, his artistic intentions, biography, trajectory and chronology, as well as the role the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which commissioned a great deal of his work. For instance, being able to view his unpublished work, specifically prints from the same scenes as his iconic images, allows us to identify some of Vishniac's intentions since we can see what he had cropped out and the various captions he had written for his photographs. Seeing the multiple prints allows us to discern his selection process. This comprehensive archive of original photographs will also benefit other scholars who rely on Vishniac’s images as documents that reflect Shtetl life in Eastern Europe during the interwar period. For instance, the JDC had requested that Vishniac only document the most impoverished Orthodox communities. Vishniac in fact cropped out wealthier people in some of his images, and did not publish his few photographs of more secular people who lived in these communities. By only viewing his better-known images, one would derive an inaccurate picture of a monolithic Orthodox community residing in Shtetls. It is important that researchers understand the history behind the photographs themselves, especially because since World War II they have often been used or interpreted as documents that reflect romanticized views of the Shtetls before they were obliterated.

Since having the collection of all Vishniac’s photographs in one location is temporary, creating a permanent digital archive is of top priority. The goals for the digital archive are twofold:
1) A digital archive will be created so that the images can be accessed by all audiences
2) There will be a special feature in the digital archive that will allow and promote international collaboration to further research on Vishniac’s work

The audiences who I expect will visit the digital Vishniac archive are those interested in documentary photography, art history and visual culture, intersections between science and art, Jewish studies and Eastern European history. In 2011, ICP will be opening a large scale Vishniac retrospective that will travel to several locations in the States and internationally. It is possible that this exhibit could create a buzz and attract more audiences to the digital archive.

There will be an application on the website for those who know Vishniac’s work or have special insight on the subject matter in the images and wish to contribute their knowledge to a wider community. Those whose applications are approved by an ICP staff member will be able to post information about the photographs. As of now, many archives and museums, particularly the Holocaust Museum and Jewish museums in Germany, have been collaborating to uncover the history of Vishniac and what he documented. Having a venue to compare and share information and ask questions will promote further research for the archive. As new information is confirmed, the publicly accessible digital archive will be updated.

Creating a digital archive will therefore improve access to Vishniac’s prints and assist in their preservation, especially because viewers will be able to use the digital image to study the subject matter of the photographs instead of physically handling the prints. The archive will also be structured in a way that will make research efficient (for instance there will be search engines that will allow the photographs to be organized by period, place or theme) and will support ongoing research and promote collaboration.

Selection Process:

ICP is already scanning all Vishniac prints and has the potential to digitize the entire collection. However, the abundance of the approximately 12,000 prints originating from about 4,000 negatives would be overwhelming to users of the archive. Therefore, priorities need to be established in order to select which images will be included in the digital archive:

1) Creating an archive that has diverse images of varying subject matter is key. This way viewers can see the range in Vishniac’s work and what he documented.
2) One way to eliminate the vast number of photographs that will be uploaded on the website is to include only the highest quality print of photographs that were duplicated. Often Vishniac has up to 10 prints of each image. I realize that this selection of course implies interpretation. However, I would select the prints by finding ones in optimal physical condition—that have not been creased and have not been marked with accretion, fingerprints, or abrasions. Prints that have a higher resolution and good tone and saturation would be ideal. Copyprints (photographs of prints that he made to give to newspapers and other venues) would not be useful. Of course any images or artifacts that are at high risk of being damaged will be included in the digital archive so their preservation is ensured.
3) I think it is important to include prints in the digital archive that the public will not have access to in the future after ICP scans them. Some of these photographs will include prints that Mara Vishniac would like to remain in the family, and others will include prints that will be given back to the Howard Greenberg Gallery, which is less accessible to the public.
4) It is important that “high-use” materials, those most frequently requested, are included in the digital archive. Most users, which consist of a diverse group of people, are most likely to research Vishniac’s pre-Holocaust photographs. This will definitely be a major consideration when the digital archive is constructed.

Through creating the database at ICP that will include each scanned image, metadata is currently being accounted for in the records. Each image has metadata that consists of possible dates when the photograph was taken, geographical location, medium (most are gelatin silver prints), any annotations by the photographer, whether a signature or stamp is included on this print, physical measurements, condition reports, where the photograph is currently located, etc… Providing metadata for the digital archive should not be a problem.

Finally, and most importantly, Mara Vishniac owns the copyright for all of Vishniac’s work and has agreed to let ICP manage his collection. After Mara Vishniac’s death, ICP will inherit ownership of the copyrights for his prints. Therefore, there should be no unforeseen legal issues concerning the archive.

All of these factors will be taken into consideration when creating the digital archive. A selection committee will be established to ensure diverse perspectives are incorporated in the formation of this archive. The committee will consist of ICP members in various departments; Mara Vishniac; Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, NYU professor of Performance Studies and Hebrew and Judaic Studies; Alana Newhouse, editor-in-chief of Nextbook, a non-profit organization for Jewish literature, culture, and ideas, who has also worked in the archives for the Jewish Daily Forward; an archivist from the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. (since they have contributed a great deal to the research on Roman Vishniac); and researchers experienced in working with online resources.

Benton, Maya, curator at ICP. Interview by Joanna Steinberg. January 30, 2009.
Peters, Clorinde, assistant curator at ICP. Interview by Joanna Steinberg. January 30, 2009.

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