Roman Vishniac: God’s Work, Magnified

Roman Vishniac

Roman Vishniac, 1977; photo by Andrew A. Skolnick from Wikimedia Commons

Photographer Roman Vishniac recorded images of eastern European Jews in the years 1936 through 1940, as he became increasingly convinced that Hitler was bent on exterminating the Jewish people in a coming Holocaust.

Vishniac was also an accomplished biologist who made important contributions to photomicroscopy and the art of time-lapse nature photography. He’s best known for his 1983 book A Vanished World, which documented Jewish culture in eastern Europe before the Holocaust. He’s widely admired for his respect for the nobility and fragility of life, especially human life.

I became aware of Roman Vishniac when my daughter, a biology professor, shared with me a profound insight from a 1974 book by Vishniac. He wrote:

“Nature, God, or whatever you want to call the creator of the universe comes through the microscope clearly and strongly. Everything made by human hands looks terrible under magnification—crude, rough, and unsymmetrical. But in nature, every bit of life is lovely. And the more magnification we use, the more details are brought out, perfectly formed, like endless sets of boxes within boxes.”

To me, that’s a startling observation, and something to reflect on the next time you examine photographs of the microworld.

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