PDN Photo of the Day

Roman Vishniac’s Poetic Photomicroscopy

Roman Vishniac is best known as a photographer of people and culture, especially for his images documenting Jewish life in Central and Eastern Europe in the years before the Holocaust. But Vishniac, who studied zoology and biology in Moscow before moving to Berlin, was also a devoted photo-microscopist, a practice he began after moving to the U.S. in 1940 and continued through the 1970s, establishing himself as a pioneer in the field. A new show at the International Center of Photography’s Gallery at Mana Contemporary in Jersey City presents a selection of these images in “‘Red Spotted Purple’: Roman Vishniac’s Science Work,” a show organized by ICP at Mana’s first artist-in-residence, Claudia Sohrens, and on view until October 27.

Sohrens selected the images from ICP’s archives. In them, Vishniac photographs amoebae and earthworms, butterflies and a mosquito biting “author’s hairy skin,” as the hand-written caption reads. Vishniac mounted the photographs on cardboard panels with labels, and his descriptive and evocative captions were part of the appeal to Sohrens. As she says in a statement, “Vishniac’s use of language and choice of words for labels and captions…transformed a sense of aspiration toward solid or clear comprehension into poetry.” The combination of image and text “encouraged me to look at his work and the relation between word and image in a new and different way, in which neither terms like ‘label and caption’ nor ‘collage and photomontage’ adequately describe his formal and iconographic boards. The poetic relationship between photography and language, and the binary of art and science are part of the discovery I would like to share in the exhibition to generate renewed interest in this part of his work.”

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