Roman Vishniac was a modernist photographer born in tsarist Russia, originally recognized for his historic images of Jewish life in Eastern Europe from 1935 through 1938. Directed by Laura Bialis, who spent three years working with Vishniac’s daughter, Mara Vishniac Kohn, VISHNIAC is a spellbinding account of this ambitious genius.
Mara, who passed away in 2018 at the age of 92, had no illusions regarding her father. He could be difficult, ostentatious and a blatant self-promoter. To photograph Nazi propaganda, he would pose little Mara in front of it --- as if he were taking her portrait. She was his “assistant” in the dark room, learning to appreciate him as an artist.
In 1940, the Vishniac family secured some of the last visas possible to leave Berlin for America. It was a harrowing time and they were extremely fortunate to escape when many Jews were being sent to concentration camps. The communities Vishniac had documented with his dramatic black and white photographs from 1935-1938 were destroyed during the Holocaust and these haunting images provide the last visual records of that time. It was an amazing feat.
Bialis convinced Mara that a documentary detailing her father’s work was necessary. Following World War II, Vishniac returned to Berlin to further chronicle the horrific aftermath --- the city in ruins and children in displaced persons camps. As before, his stark photos remind us of an era that should never be repeated.
Then Vishniac completely changes gears and turns to the field of microscopy, depicting life through a microscope. The “Living Biology” series he photographed and filmed, which was funded by the National Science Foundation, was a classroom staple across the U.S. in the 60s and 70s.
Mara narrates Bialis’ doc and after many years of not wanting to discuss his life’s work, she had learned to embrace it --- and his legacy --- preserving over 23,000 items. Bialis has done a masterful job bringing Vishniac’s magic and passions to the big screen, which was her sincerest hope.
Opinion: Mild See It Now!
A Russian-born photographer named Roman Vishniac is the subject of a new documentary entitled VISHNIAC. His story has now been told by director Laura Bialis who met his daughter Mara Vishniac Kohn over 30 years ago. Mara, who died in 2018 at age 92, narrates much of the doc, written by Sophie Sartain.
So why is this man the central figure in a 90-minute film? He was an accomplished photographer and an equally important microbiologist. His love of science and living organisms can be summarized by this quote: “The closer you get, the more beautiful it is.” His colorization of formerly black and white photos of cells, paramecium, etc., gave renewed attention to the field of microbiology. Instead of cell life displayed between two small pieces of glass --- i.e, seen under a microscope --- he gave these tiny specimens of living things a previously unknown dimension.
However --- perhaps his most important contributions to mankind were his pre-war photos of Jews in Eastern Europe, especially children. As stated in the film, neither Vishniac nor anyone else had a crystal ball to know the Holocaust was coming. But after the war was over, his photos became a lasting memorial to the millions of Jews murdered by the Nazis.
VISHNIAC is also narrated by other survivors, besides Mara, and actors portray subjects from his life --- including Vishniac himself --- who are now deceased. Also, Vishniac was a renowned storyteller as well as an exaggerator of things scientific. In one sequence he is seen poring over a microscope and remarking that one cell was meeting its friend, i.e., another cell. It should be noted his peers in the scientific community were not enthralled with this aspect of his research.
Thousands and thousands of his photos had never been seen before. It was left to Mara and the film crew to bring many of these to light in this movie. VISHNIAC represents a small piece of history, but certainly a fascinating one.
Opinion: See It Now!