Vishniac ★★★★★ — Jewish Renaissance

Vishniac’s self-promotion was also self-preservation. When the family immigrated to America, he had to support himself and his family. He took a job with Life magazine, reinventing himself as a scientific microscopic photographer. This unique technique was one he had practised since childhood; using a microscope to capture living organisms. Until then, samples were only photographed when flattened between two sheets of glass.

Vishniac’s iconic photos of Jewish life, whether it was in Russia, Poland, Germany or the United States, connect with us, because he connected with the people in his frame. They look out at us, because he looked at them. Vishniac did not just see them, he talked to them, felt himself to be part of them. When the American Joint Distribution Committee commissioned him to travel to Eastern Europe in the mid-1930s, the idea was to raise money for impoverished Jewish communities. Nobody knew then that almost all his subjects would perish. Vishniac’s photographs bear witness to shtetl life; they are the survivors.

Mara disliked posing for her father’s camera, but she loved his stories, dramatic in the retelling, and in the make-believe. One whole room at home, known as The Aquarium, housed exotic animals. They acquired a monkey called Jackie, who sat with them at the table. Wolf, Mara’s adored brother, four years her senior, was already a budding scientist. Vishniac’s great gift to his children was to enthuse them with curiosity and with wonder for every living creature.

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