Magazine article Artforum International

Roman Vishniac

Magazine article Artforum International

Roman Vishniac

Article excerpt

INTERNATIONAL CENTER OF PHOTOGRAPHY

On the one hand, Roman Vishniac shows us images of "man," in accordance with the exhibition's title "Man, Nature, and Science, 1930-1985"--man in the form of pathetic, impoverished Jews in their East European shtetls, just before the Holocaust. A map shows us the locations of the places in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Poland where Vishniac documented "the vanishing lifestyles and traditions of his people." The last of the images is of a terrified face on the evening of November 9, 1938, Kristallnacht. All these photographs are in black and white, and somewhere between hard and soft focus, giving the impression that we are looking at memory in the making. It is as if Vishniac were already in mourning, anticipating the inevitable.

These contrast vividly with his exquisite, large, color photographs of various microorganisms, insects, and living materials--the micrographic photographs that show him as a kind of adjunct scientist, at once analytically and tenderly studying life. Not all of these works are in color, but all show a loving attention to detail--an extraordinary sense of precision--and a fascination with life at its most elementary. Taken together, the two sides of Vishniac's oeuvre--the one showing suffering and resignation to suffering, with death implicit, the other in the service of science, and bursting with life (the one about inhumane society, the other about the triumph of nature)--are a major allegorical statement of our dubious condition. We may be intellectually sophisticated, but we are emotionally primitive. Vishniac is an important philosopher of the embarrassing paradox of being human. …

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