Roman Vishniac

Vishniac, Roman (vĭshˈnēăk) [key], 1897–1990, Russian-American biologist, photographer, linguist, art historian, and philosopher, b. Pavlosk, near St. Petersburg. Vishniac took degrees in medicine, philosophy, art history, and biology. In 1920 he fled to Berlin, where he conducted research in endocrinology and worked as a photojournalist. From around 1935 to 1938 he produced a photographic record of Jewish communities in Central and Western Europe. A part of this unique humanitarian document was published in 1947 under the title Polish Jews: A Pictorial Record. In the mid-1930s he was imprisoned 11 times and forced to do hard labor in two concentration camps. He escaped and emigrated to the United States in 1940.

In the United States Vishniac returned to his scientific pursuits. At Yeshiva Univ. in New York City he was appointed (1957) research associate at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and became professor of biological education there in 1961. A pioneer in time-lapse cinematography and light-interruption photography as well as in the color photomicroscopy of living organisms, Vishniac became in 1960 project director and filmmaker for the Living Biology film series sponsored by the National Science Foundation. His chief biological researches were in the field of marine microbiology, the physiology of ciliates, and circulation systems in unicellular plants. He proposed the hypothesis that the first living organisms were multicellular structures that emerged many times in many places by different biochemical pathways (polyphyletic origin). A volume of his color microphotographs of proteins, vitamins, and hormones, Building Blocks of Life, was published in 1971. Widely read and fluent in most modern and ancient European and Asian languages, Vishniac also was a specialist in East Asian art and philosophy. He taught in several fields at a number of universities including the City Univ. of New York, Pratt Institute, and Case Western Reserve Univ.

An archive containing thousands of Vishniac's 1930s negatives was donated in 2007 to the International Center of Photography. In addition to the photographs of impoverished and intensely religious Jews contained in his 1947 book, many of which were reproduced in his well-known A Vanished World (1983), the archive contains many other images that document the more diverse Jewish population that inhabited Eastern Europe at the time.

See also his work in To Give Them Light: The Legacy of Roman Vishniac (1995) and Children of a Vanished World (1999).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

See more Encyclopedia articles on: Photography: Biographies