The intersecting narratives behind the current exhibitions at the International Center of Photography include some of the darkest moments of the 20th Century. They include images of cities in ruin, refugees and orphans, and storefronts spewing anti-Jewish propaganda. Most of the photographs feature ordinary people, especially children. Running through May 5, "We Went Back: Photographs from Europe 1933-1956 by Chim" and "Roman Vishniac Rediscovered," present the life's work of two photojournalists whose works pulse with life even as they edge closest to death.
Vishniac and Chim's work overlap in both content and goals. Chim, a political photographer, at times collaborated with propaganda offices to further his own political passions. From 1935-1938, Vishniac exposed the hardships of European Jews to attract funding for a prominent Jewish relief organization. Their work is linked by a spirit of advocacy. "The overlapping point is Warsaw," said Maya Benton, curator of "Roman Vishniac Rediscovered."
"Chim was born in Warsaw — his father owned a Yiddish and Hebrew printing press there, and he was very much of the world that Vishniac photographed." Vishniac initially documented lives like Chim's to attract philanthropy, and the work only later came to be seen as a record of an annihilated people. Vishniac's post-war work is more conscious testimony of destruction, depicting scenes of Berlin reduced to rubble and Passover at displaced person camps. One camp Vishniac photographed even held Benton's own mother. Growing up, she spoke Yiddish at home and remembers always being aware of Vishniac's work. "For me, this is a very personal project."
Chim's work also lingers on rebuilding lives in the post-war period. Several portraits of war orphans came out of a 1948 trip funded by UNESCO. A startling color photo, "Children Playing on Omaha Beach," shows four kids next to a half-buried wartime freighter ship at the site of the D-Day landing three years before. It is one of curator Cynthia Young's favorites. It was buried in a collection of about 3000 negatives donated by a distant cousin of Chim's. Several additional relatives of both Chim and Vishniac contributed to each exhibit.
The collections don't stop at photographic prints — negatives, and newspaper and magazine clippings are also displayed. Preserving these items can be expensive — they require space, and are sensitive to light and humidity. "I think it's so brave for a museum to defend ephemera," Benton said. "It costs a fortune to keep them, but from the very beginning, ICP has recognized the value of a photographers' archive."