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Tuesday: 11:00 am – 4:00 pm
Wednesday: 11:00 am – 4:00 pm
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Roman Vishniac (1897-1990), a Russian-Jewish modernist photographer, lived and worked in Berlin from 1920 to 1939. During that period, he extensively documented Jewish life in Central and Eastern Europe. After fleeing Nazi Germany, he found safety in New York City and became a US citizen in 1946. The Roman Vishniac Archive, which The Magnes acquired in 2018, also includes thousands of photographs taken after the Second World War in the United States, Europe, Israel, and Palestine.
Vishniac had been collaborating with the Jewish Daily Forward – then the “world’s largest Jewish daily” – from Europe since 1938. In the summer of 1947, the newspaper sent him to France and Germany, to visit “various cities… to obtain photographs and stories of human and general interest,” and most notably, to photograph Jews living in displaced persons camps. The journey, sponsored by the American Joint Distribution Committee and the United Jewish Appeal, took him back to Berlin.
The haunting photographs of his former hometown devastated by the effect of the war show collapsed buildings and cathedrals, refugee camps, and civic parks turned into vegetable gardens. Many portray his old neighborhood, Charlottenburg, which had once housed many of the city’s Jewish residents; his home, now in ruins; and the timid resurgence of urban life in a city split across American, British, French, and Soviet-controlled sectors.
A few weeks after the Six-Day War in the summer of 1967, Roman Vishniac traveled to Israel. He met family, friends, and colleagues, and visited public institutions and natural sights. He also spent several days in Jerusalem, which had fallen under Israeli control. There, he took color transparencies, or slides, as visual field notes for a never-realized future project to photographically document the still-emerging State of Israel in many of its already apparent contradictions.
Vishniac depicted the damage to buildings and the remaining fortifications of the siege of Mount Scopus; the former “no man’s land” between Israel and Jordan; the dire conditions around the Western Wall in the Old City; and the rebuilding of the city across its contested borders. He also took a deep view of the shifting conditions of the Arab residents in East Jerusalem, a perspective that is consistent with his focus on disenfranchised communities in Europe and the United States.
Cities & Wars follows Vishniac’s journeys to Berlin and Jerusalem, displaying large-format black & white photographic prints from negatives shot in Berlin, along with digital displays of color slides from Jerusalem. Both are cities that the photographer considered “home,” each in a very different and unique way: Berlin, a once fabled, and then lost, haven where he had begun his life as a documentary photographer; and Jerusalem, which catered to his deep connection with the Jewish experience. Most of the images included in the exhibition have never been seen in public before. Together they highlight the unique gaze of the photographer, along with a careful chronicling of the devastating effects of war on urban life that remain all too familiar to the contemporary viewer.
~ Francesco Spagnolo