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Scientific Work and Photomicroscopy, America, early 1950s-late 1970s

Nature has explained to me many things that books alone could not give me. Science and nature have given me the most interesting hours of my life.
—Roman Vishniac

From his earliest years as a biology and zoology student in Moscow, Vishniac pursued his lifelong passion for photomicroscopy. His innovative use of polarized light and high magnification allowed him to capture unique images of the microscopic world. By the mid-1950s, Vishniac had established himself as a pioneer in the field and was regularly commissioned by government agencies, scientists, and institutions to document and research microorganisms and biological phenomena. A major profile on Vishniac in the New Yorker in 1955 celebrated both his groundbreaking scientific photography and his earlier eastern European photographs.

Vishniac also achieved renown as an accomplished cinemicroscopist, creating numerous scientific films now housed in the collection of the University of South Carolina. A generation of students learned biology from these films. Vishniac's color photography appeared in hundreds of magazine and journal articles and on dozens of covers, including Life, OMNI, Nature, and Science, and his research provided vital visual resources to world-renowned scientists. In the 1950s, he became a professor of biology and art education; scientific research, teaching, and photomicroscopy would remain the focus of Vishniac's work in America until his death in 1990.

In the final days of his life, as his health rapidly declined, Vishniac was visited by his son-in-law, the physicist and Nobel Laureate Walter Kohn, who showed him prints made by one of his colleagues using a scanning electron microscope depicting individual atoms lying on metallic surfaces. Vishniac, weak and exhausted, leaned forward slightly and asked, "What magnification?" When told "about ten million fold," he slumped back into the bed, declaring, "Then they have beaten me."

The exhibition includes a slide show of more than 90 color and black-and-white science transparencies from the early 1950s to the late 1970s—many digitized for the first time—showing Vishniac's original captions wherever available. The original slides and science prints are now in the collection of the International Center of Photography.

Maya Benton, Curator


The captions included in Vishniac’s science slideshow were derived from the photographer’s original annotations on his slides and color prints. Slides that did not include annotations are left uncaptioned. Conflicting captions exist in some cases. Dating is also a challenge; Vishniac’s color photomicroscopy shown here spans the early 1950s to the late 1970s, but exact dates are difficult to establish.

Vishniac’s science slides, now in the collection of ICP, have not yet been digitized. As the work becomes publicly available, we hope that broad access and further research will help to resolve dates and captions and contribute information on his science work. We invite anyone with information or identifications associated with the material in this slideshow to submit a comment to the Roman Vishniac Archive at vishniac_archive@icp.org.