It seems impossible that the eyes of a single human being can embrace all that those of Roman Vishniac saw throughout his life. He looked with the same curiosity at humans and animals. He ran his gaze over more than a dozen countries and two continents. He enjoyed the beauty and bustle of the golden age of big cities that were the twenties and thirties in Europe, but he wandered with the same energy on the inhospitable roads that could be trodden only by foot or mule, searching for villages with isolated Jewish communities living engrossed in religion and poverty. To get where it was forbidden or where he knew they would not receive him well, Roman Vishniac posed as a traveling fabric seller, which justified his luggage in which he carried his photographic equipment.
From a young age he had a special inclination towards photography, disguises, and changes of crafts and trades. When he was seven years old and lived in Moscow, he managed to couple a primitive camera with the lens of a microscope he was just given by his grandmother, and to take a picture of a cockroach’s leg enlarged hundred and fifty times. He studied biology and Far Eastern art. When life became unbearable in Soviet Russia, Roman Vishniac dressed up as a bolshevik, and succeeded in having an outlet pass for all his family, signed by Trotsky himself.
His father had made a fortune in Russia from umbrella manufacturing. When they settled in Berlin, and sold the few family jewels his mother had saved, they found themselves in poverty. His father was ill and collapsed. Roman Vishniac, just over twenty, had to maintain all his family, including his wife, because he had just married. He worked in a dairy, an insurance company, a typewriter shop, a car factory. Somehow he managed to pursue university studies in endocrinology, optics and Oriental art. He invented a way to use polarized things to reveal the internal structure of living things. With his two handheld cameras, a Leica and a Rolleiflex, he went around Berlin to take pictures of places and people, almost always unnoticed. He installed himself in a doorway, and from there he shot the street, so that the dark rectangle of the door became the front side of the stage on which featured the casual inhabitants of the city. It is a Berlin of cobbled streets, bicycles, trams, black cars, gleaming bikes, shop signs, large posters of theaters and cinemas.
Slowly, first in such a subtle way that one cannot notice it, in the Berlin photos by Roman Vishniac start appearing swastikas: a swastika painted on a shop window, a flag hanging from a balcony. Since the Jews were forbidden to have cameras, Vishniac sometimes went out disguised as a Nazi. He also had anothe trick to take photos without risk about the monstruous visual drift slowly occupying the city: he went out with his daughter, and let her stand smiling in front of an anti-Semitic poster, or at the door of an orthopedic shop where they advertised by large print an apparatus to measure the differences between the size of the skull of the Aryans and Jews. In 1935 he launched one of the big projects of his life: to wander about Central and Eastern Europe and to photographically document Jewish life. Most of his friends dismissed the mortal threats of Hitler as the delirium of a demagoge. Roman Vishniac, whose active and jovial disposition did not hinder his perspicacity, was soon convinced that Hitler spoke seriously. For almost four entire years he toured the Jewish villages and little towns, broke his way on roads blinded by snow, visited small rural communities and populous suburbs. He portrayed peasants, Talmud students, long-bearded patriarchs, children with big and frightened eyes, entire families huddled in basements, women of a pensive beauty surrounded by gloom, street vendors, rogues. His photos invoke the world of Isaac Bashevich Singer’s stories. In a village in Czechoslovakia they took him for a spy and held him in a dungeon for a month. In Zbaszyn, on the border between Germany and Poland, in December 1938, he managed to sneak in a camp, crowded by blocks and barracks in the mud and snow: the camp of Polish Jews expelled from Germany, whom the Polish government refused to accept. He left the camp by jumping over the fence with his suitcase, and sent the pictures he had taken there to the League of Nations.
With an Estonian passport he fled Germany in 1939 and settled in France. But the Soviet occupation of the Baltic republics made him a stateless person, and the Vichy government sent him into a camp for undesirable foreigners. He made it with his family to New York in 1940, and, for the third or fourth time, had to start a new life in a world alien to him. He spoke Russian, German, French, Polish, Slovak, Rusyn Italian, but he was lost, since he did not know any English. Pretending to be sent by a mutual friend, he introduced himself in Einstein’s house in Princeton, and taking advantage of his oversight, he made his best portrait. After the war he returned to Europa, and took photos in the same streets of Berlin where he lived less than ten years earlier, now ranges of ruins. They told him that his childhood home in Moscow had been demolished to make room for an expansion to the Lubyanka prison. The vast majority of the people portrayed in the over five thousand photos he took during his travels had been killed.
He invented a system to take photos through the eyes of a firefly. Back in New York, in the fifties, he took stunning color photos of wasps in flight, jellyfish, unicellular algae, red blood cells, insect larvae, the cell tissue of the human hand, the interior of a root, the section of a pine needle, the metamorphosis of tadpoles, snow crystals when the sun begins to melt them. In order not to scare the insects he studied, he rubbed himself with grass and dirt to hide his scent, and had learned to hold his breath for up to two minutes. He refused to take photos of dead animals. As a child, he was taken to fishing, and when he caught a fish out of the water, and saw the blood and the hook across his mouth, he w shaken by a remorse he did not forget in his life. He died in New York, in the same neighborhood of European refugees where he had arrived in 1940. He was 92, and had seen so many things that sometimes he attributed his own memories to a large number of other people.