Curators, scholars and historians love nothing more than coming upon a treasure trove of never-before-seen materials by a significant figure in their field. Happily, two significant exhibitions, on separate floors of the International Center of Photography (ICP), revisit and reevaluate two well-known 20th Century photographers, Roman Vishniac and Chim, precisely because of recently discovered material, prompting ICP curators to redefine their careers.
Roman Vishniac is best known for his haunting images of Jewish life in Eastern Europe between two World Wars. But, as Adjunct Curator Maya Benton points out, “only two percent of Vishniac’s work was ever published during his lifetime, most notably in A Vanished World (1983).”
ICP’s Roman Vishniac Rediscovered, passionately and lovingly organized by Benton, makes the case that “Vishniac’s iconic photographs of Eastern European Jewry should be repositioned within a broader tradition of 1930s social documentary photography.” Moreover, says Benton, “By introducing recently discovered and radically diverse bodies of work — including 1000 negatives in a New Jersey attic, vintage prints, rare pre-World War II film footage, contact sheets, personal correspondence and pioneering work in the in the field of photomicroscopy — this exhibition stakes Vishniac’s claim as a modern master.”
Born in 1897 to an affluent Russian-Jewish family, Vishniac studied zoology and biology in Moscow, where he was raised. He and his family emigrated to Berlin in after the Bolshevik Revolution. Vishniac was 23 and took to the streets, first as a gifted amateur photographer. His early work reveals a young man’s biting social commentary (see Polar Bears image, below) as well as a familiarity with modernism and avant-garde approaches to framing and composition. Then, increasingly during the 1920s and 30s, he turned towards photojournalism, using his camera to document the Nazi rise to power on German streets.
People Behind Bars, Berlin Zoo, Early 1930s
From 1935 to 1938, while living in Berlin and working as a biologist and science photographer, the European branch of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (AJDC), the world’s largest relief organization, commissioned Vishniac to photograph impoverished Jewish communities in Central and Eastern Europe. That project and its celebrated images – used by the AJDC to raise funds – unwittingly captured a Jewish world that utterly vanished during WWII and, until this exhibition, defined his legacy as a photographer. But it proved to be only a phase of his fifty-year career.
He and his family moved to France and Vishniac, as a Jew and refugee living in Vichy France, was rounded up and interned in Southern France. Through various connections he managed to get himself released. He fled to America and arrived in New York on New Year’s Day, 1941. To earn a living, he opened a portrait studio, photographed a range of celebrities and continued to his close relationship with Jewish agencies helping refugees.
At the same time, Vishniac’s passion for science continued. Among his many accomplishments, he married the camera to the microscope and pioneered a new field, photomicroscopy, specializing in images of living organisms in motion. Until his death, in the late 1970s, he continued to enhance the field, making major contributions to light interruption photography and color photomicroscopy. Many of his images, scientifically invaluable, are incredibly beautiful, and an entire room within the ICP exhibition is devoted to a slideshow of 100 color transparencies – digitized for the first time.
In 1947, Vishniac returned to Europe and documented the ruins of Berlin, Jewish displaced persons camps, the efforts of Holocaust survivors to start over, and the work of Jewish relief organizations to provide survivors with aid and emigration assistance.
A parallel accomplishment to the rediscovery and mounting of Vishniac’s large body of work is the digitization of every image in the vast ICP Vishniac archive, and the development of a shared digital database with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Eventually, everyone interested in Vishniac’s images, notes, and documentary information – from scholar to amateur –will have access to this material. A notable achievement and pioneer act of sharing, in and of itself.
Chim (David Seymour)
Two years ago, ICP mounted a seminal exhibition, The Mexican Suitcase: Rediscovered Spanish Civil War Negatives, whose subject was the famously “lost” war photography of Robert Capa, his lover and fellow war photographer, Gerda Taro and their friend, fellow photojournalist, “Chim.” That discovery led ICP curator Cynthia Young, in turn, to rethink the thirty-year career of “Chim,” the less-well-known member of that famous trio, and organize this exhibition, We Went Back: Photographs From Europe 1933-1956. Her reevaluation, in her opinion, “long overdue,” is based on new and rediscovered material, scholarship, new attribution of negatives found in the so-called Mexican Suitcase, as well as newly catalogued vintage prints.
David Szymin, a Polish Jew, was born in Warsaw in 1911, into a distinguished family of publishers who specialized in Hebrew and Yiddish literature. He studied in Liepzig and the Sorbonne, in Paris, a city he moved to in 1932. Like Vishniac, he picked up a camera as an amateur, but began to cover his living expenses with his photographs of Popular Front events, which he sold to a major French picture magazine, Regards. Because Szymin was too difficult to pronounce or spell, he proposed “Chim,” as a byline in the early 1930s when he began contributing his photographs to leftist magazines in Paris. The name stuck.
In the spring of 1936, sent to Spain to cover the Civil War, his images were widely published in the international press, along with those of his friends, Capa and Taro.
“A photographer’s photographer,” says Young, “Chim was one of the most respected photojournalists of his day.” And while war was the backdrop for much of his early reportage, he was not known primarily for his war photography but, rather, as a photojournalist who keenly observed twentieth-century European politics, social life and culture, from the beginnings of the antifascist struggle to the rebuilding of countries ravaged by World War II.
When World War II began, Paris was no place for Chim, a Jew, a foreigner and a leftist. In 1939, he escaped France in a boat with Spanish refugees sailing to Mexico, and ultimately arrived in New York, where he reconnected with Capa, his sister and other friends. He enlisted in the US. Army, was assigned to aerial photo reconnaissance in England, and landed in Paris days after its liberation in 1944. In 1947, he became a naturalized U.S. citizen and again changed his name to the more American-sounding David Seymour. That year he also co-founded Magnum Photos with Capa, Cartier-Bresson and George Rodger, and resumed his career as a photojournalist, recording daily life in devastated postwar Europe for a story, titled, “We Went Back.”
Chim’s post-war images were somewhat softer, and included photographs of Ingrid Bergman and other celebrities, especially in Italy, where he spent a number of years observing the country’s rich cultural life and transition to democracy. Throughout the late 40s and early 50s he traveled constantly on assignment for international magazines and special projects, including a UNESCO commission, documenting the impact of war on European children. He also traveled a number of times to Israel to document the new country and its settlers.
During a 30-year career, tragically cut short in 1956, while covering the Suez Crisis, Chim’s images combined visual sophistication and elegance with a deeply felt emotional response to the people and places he observed. We Went Back includes more than 150 vintage black-and-white prints, previously unseen color prints – including a box of transparencies from 1947 – and new personal materials, garnered from the collections of ICP and Chim’s nephew, niece and extended family.
This is a double-barreled show from two European-born masters of 20th Century photography who, in similar and different ways, illuminated pre-World War II Europe, the rise of Fascism and Nazism, the tragedies of post-World War II refugees, and, much, much more. Don’t miss it!
Roman Vishniac Rediscovered and
We Went Back: Photographs From Europe 1933-1956 by Chim
International Center of Photography (ICP)
1133 Avenue of the Americas (43rd Street)
January 18 – May 5, 2013