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Roman Vishniac (1897-1990) Documentarian, Scientist, Artist

Vishniac in his apartment/studio with his custom-made microscope stand and Arrifelex 16mm film camera

Dr. Peter Hansell, HonFRPS, was a true pioneer of the practice and teaching of medical photography. We have used the funds from the Hansell Scholarship to support research for an upcoming article to be published in The Journal of BioCommunications in 2018. The article is illustrated with several videos and examples of Roman Vishniac’s extraordinary work and explores his career as a scientific photographer/cinemicroscopist.


If you are of a certain age, and attended high school science class or college biology in the United States during the sixties and seventies, you probably viewed some Roman Vishniac’s films in science class. He received large grants from the National Science Foundation to produce a series of films, many with segments of live organism under the microscope with eloquent and informative narration. He was one of the top scientific photographers of the day, along with Fritz Goro, who at the time worked for Life Magazine. Unlike Goro, Vishniac was a freelance science photographer for most of his career. In the fifties and sixties he was very active in the Biological Photographers Association and won several “Best of Show” awards in the BPA salon with his beautiful images of live specimens, captured under the microscope. He was also recognized as a Fellow of the BPA for his contributions and craftsmanship with his microscopy technique of imaging live protozoa on both 16mm motion picture and still capture.


Vishniac’s first love was science and even though his photomicrography of live specimens was extremely novel for the time, his use of moving pictures to observe behaviors that had never been captured with the microscope is truly amazing. After emigrating from Europe to the America in 1941, Vishniac continued his scientific researches and had a successful career doing scientific photography for corporate clients like IBM, Westinghouse, and Pfizer as well as magazines like Life, OMNI, and Popular Photography. He also collaborated with medical doctors and biologist to make specialized scientific films.   

Vishniac had a long and varied more than sixty-year career as a photographer/cinemicroscopist. Most people recognize and associate the name Roman Vishniac as the photographer who documented the lives of Eastern European Jews in Poland and the Carpathian Mountains from ca. 1935-1938. His powerful photographs are a lasting document of Jewish life in Eastern Europe – in the cities and towns with significant Jewish populations, as well as small villages, or shtetls – where Jews lived for centuries.     

His photographs documented a way of life that was lost because of the Nazis and the 2ndWorld War. He published several books and probably his most notable is A Vanished World with a forward by Elie Wiesel.

Vishniac’s archive of work resides in the collection of The International Center of Photography in New York City, and much of the archive can be viewed on line. In recent years there has been new interest in his work and a new publication entitled, Roman Vishniac: Rediscovered, by Maya Benton (co-published by the International Center of Photography and DelMonico Books•Prestel, (ISBN: 978-3-7913-5395-1). Scholars, photography curators, and cultural critics came together to reappraise Vishniac's radically diverse body of work that spans the 1920s through the 1980s. This first retrospective monograph on Roman Vishniac offers many new perspectives on the work and career of this important photographer, positioning him as one of the great modernists and social documentary photographers of the last century.

The book along with an international traveling exhibition was drawn from the International Center of Photography’s vast holdings of work by Roman Vishniac. This beautifully illustrated and expansive volume offers a new and profound consideration of this key modernist photographer. In addition to featuring Vishniac’s best-known work—the iconic images of Jewish life in Eastern Europe before the Holocaust— the publication also introduces many previously unpublished photographs spanning more than six decades of Vishniac’s work. These include newly discovered images of prewar Berlin, rare film footage from rural Jewish communities in Carpatheina Ruthenia, documentation of postwar ruins and Displaced Persons’ camps, and vivid coverage of Jewish life in America in the 1940s and ’50s. Vishniac was a documentarian as well as a story-teller, who has been criticized for sometimes taking liberties with the truth. But none-the less, he made significant contributions and is one of the top photographers of the 20th century.