Dean Guyer at Roman Vishniac. In Focus: 1922-2022


Focusing on Vishniac

May 20, 2022

The inaugural 2-day event Roman Vishniac. In Focus: 1922-2022 Open House and Symposium celebrating the Roman Vishniac Archive was a huge success! Both an in-person Open House and a virtual Symposium, The Magnes and UC Berkeley’s Center for Jewish Studies shared Vishniac’s work and the research happening around it with scholars, supporters, and the public.

The Magnes opens its doors

On Sunday, May 1st, we welcomed a large, in-person group who enjoyed a variety of Roman Vishniac’s photos showcasing the scope of his life’s work, The Magnes Collection’s current exhibitions, and time spent with Magnes and Center for Jewish Studies family and friends.

Magnes and Center for Jewish Studies Faculty Director John Efron kicked off the event welcoming all and introducing special guest Sara Guyer, Dean of Arts and Humanities at UC Berkeley. The Dean’s pride in The Magnes Collection and Jewish Studies at Cal was evident as she spoke to the impact Vishniac’s Archive and material culture have on scholarship at UC Berkeley.

Benjamin Schiff at Roman Vishniac. In Focus: 1922-2022
Symposium speaker Benjamin Schiff discussing his grandfather’s photographs with a guest. (Photo Credit: Catharyn Hayne, KLC Fotos)

Curator Francesco Spagnolo introduced the digital displays showcasing selections from four themes within Vishniac’s photographs: Eastern European Jewish communities just prior to World War II, microscopic photography, images from post-war Berlin, and photographs from 1967 Israel just after the 6-Day War.

Opening the doors after these last 2 years and feeling the vibrant energy of attendees as they discussed Vishniac’s work and the current exhibitions on display brought life back into the material culture housed at The Magnes.

Aubrey Pomerance, Naomi Schiff, Benjamin Schiff, John Efron, and Francesco Spagnolo
Symposium speaker Aubrey Pomerance, Vishniac grandchildren, Naomi Schiff and Benjamin Schiff, Facutly Director John Efron, and Magnes Curator Francesco Spagnolo enjoying the May 1st Open House. (Photo Credit: Catharyn Hayne, KLC Fotos)

Monday’s Symposium did not disappoint

With 250 participants and 9 speakers from around the world, we dug deep into the Roman Vishniac Archive, discussing the historical context and content of Vishniac’s life work. 

The day started with Vishniac’s Workshop: The Polish Republic and Weimar Germany and Samuel Kassow from Trinity College asking the question, “Who were these Jews that Roman Vishniac photographed on the eve of the war?” followed by Michael Brenner from American University and Ludwig-Maximilians University of Munich focusing on the East European culture unfolding in Berlin when Vishniac resided there during the 1920s and early 30s.

If you’ve enjoyed it half as much as I have, It was a day well spent!

John Efron, Faculty Director, The Magnes Collection and Center for Jewish Studies

Moderated by Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Curator at POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, Jeffrey Shandler, Professor at Rutgers, began the 2nd panel, Roman Vishniac and His Work by discussing Vishniac’s work in Eastern Europe during the mid-to-late 1920s and how the dynamics of their presentation are emblematic of the development of Holocaust memory.

The 2nd presenter in this panel, Vishniac’s grandson, Benjamin Schiff, brought personal insight to the discussion as he shared memories of “Grandfather Ramon,” his life work and passion within science, microscopic imagery and photographic innovation.

Roman Vishniac, Amino Acid (100,000x) photograph
Roman Vishniac (1897-1990) Amino Acid (100,000x), ca. 1970. Chromogenic print. The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, University of California, Berkeley, gift of Mara Vishniac Kohn, 2018.15.

The final panel turned to Vishniac’s work in Berlin and Jerusalem. Aubrey Pomerance, Head of Archives at the Jewish Museum Berlin, brought to life Vishniac’s lesser known work from his 20 years residing in Berlin, revealing a photographer coming into his own. This was followed by Hebrew University Postdoctoral Fellow Rebekka Grossmann taking us on Vishniac’s journey to Israel through the lens of the photographs he took there.

In closing, Professor Efron remarked, “We now have a more fully developed picture of Vishniac, his life and work. We have been given a glimpse into his character… He was a deeply interested man, and a curious man.”

Just the beginning

With the success of In Focus, the Open House and Symposium become an invitation to go further. With the Roman Vishniac Archive, The Magnes and the Center for Jewish Studies are in a position to lead further scholarship in Jewish history and how it relates to the history of photography.

Symposium Recordings

Roman Vishniac. In Focus: 1922-2022 Panel 1 Video "ishniac’s Workshop: The Polish Republic and Weimar Germany"
Opening remarks with Director John Efron, Dean Sara Guyer, and Curator Francesco Spagnolo. Panel one featuring The Pre-war World of East European Jewry with Samuel Kassow and Vishniac’s Weimar Germany: East European Jewish Culture in Berlin with Michael Brenner.
Roman Vishniac. In Focus: 1922-2022 Panel 2 Video "Roman Vishniac and His Work"
Panel two featuring Roman Vishniac’s Photographs of East European Jews: An Odyssey of Memory with Jeffrey Shandler and Grandfather Roman: A 19th Century Naturalist and 20th Century Photographer with Benjamin Schiff, moderated by Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett.
Roman Vishniac. In Focus: 1922-2022 Panel 3 Video "Vishniac From Berlin to Jersusalem"
Panel three featuring Roman Wischniak. The Berlin Years with Aubrey Pomerance and Vishniac in Israel with Rebekka Grossmann, moderated by Francesco Spagnolo. Includes closing remarks by John Efron.

Symposium Featured on Berkeley Talks Podcast

Listen to the episode and view the transcript on Berkeley News.

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