By Joe Ferguson
The image above is not the creviced surface of a distant astronomical sphere or the fantastical swirling of Van Gogh’s Starry Night, but the skin of the thumb magnified 280 times. Many of us were drawn to the sciences by images like this. We spent countless hours flipping through textbooks or clicking through slideshows on science sites when we discovered there was a vast and amazing world beyond what could be seen with the naked eye
The photographer who took the picture above became fascinated by the invisible world at an early age. He took his first photograph—an insect’s leg magnified 3 times—at age 7 by combining a camera and microscope. His work and life’s history are the subjects of an impressive new exhibition at The Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco.
In Roman Vishniac Rediscovered we are confronted with a staggering volume of work that spans a significant portion of the 20th-century and covers a broad range of subjects. Best known for his photographic record of Jewish life in Eastern Europe between the two World Wars, Vishniac was an accomplished photographer who worked in many styles from social documentation to Avant Garde modernism.
He was born in 1897 to an affluent Jewish family in Moscow. He pursued graduate degrees in biology and zoology before immigrating to Berlin in 1920. His development as a professional photographer coincided with the Nazi rise to power. In 1935, he was hired by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to photograph impoverished Jewish communities in Central and Eastern Europe.
Following a brief internment in France, Vishniac immigrated to New York in 1941 and opened a portrait studio to support his family. Throughout the 1940s, he continued to chronicle the societal impact of World War II while working to establish himself in the field of photomicroscopy.
By the mid-1950s, Vishniac was considered a pioneer of scientific photography. His unique use of polarized light and high magnification allowed him to capture stunning images that landed on the pages and covers of many magazines and scientific journals, including Life, OMNI, Nature, and Science. One of his most famous accomplishments was his revolutionary photographs from the inside of a firefly’s eye.
Roman Vishniac Rediscovered is worthy of multiple visits. The volume of work and emotional intensity of subject matter warrant time and reflection. It seems ironic that his life is now under the microscope, and in viewing his works en masse we see a man bent on using photography not simply as a technology of documentation, but as a tool to inspire awe and consideration. He could have framed and lit his microscopic subjects in conventional ways, but instead he made choices that appealed to our aesthetic sensibilities, thereby rendering his work beyond simple representation.
Scientific photography—particularly of microscopic subjects—is rarely held with the same artistic reverence as social documentary photography. This may be because the subjects seem foreign to most viewers, and therefore lack common visual references. Those of us trained in the sciences, however, bring to the viewing a deep personal schema filled with wonder, awe, and years of study. If the aim of art is to provide insight or inspiration that is unattainable through other means, then microscopic photography is worthy of consideration as an artistic medium.
Roman Vishniac Rediscovered runs through May 29th. A slideshow of his microscopic photography is accessible through The CJM’s website.