ICP and the Roman Vishniac Archive Celebrate African American History Month

Roman Vishniac, Guitarist and blues singer Josh White at  Café Society, New York’s first integrated nightclub, Greenwich Village, New York, 1944

©Mara Vishniac Kohn, courtesy International Center of Photography

Roman Vishniac, Guitarist and blues singer Josh White, and unknown performers, Café Society, Greenwich Village, New York, 1944. Contact strips.

©Mara Vishniac Kohn, courtesy International Center of Photography

When you hear the name Roman Vishniac, it likely calls to mind the photographer’s iconic interwar images of Jewish life in Eastern Europe. Vishniac, a Russian-born photographer who lived in Berlin throughout the 1920s and 1930s, immigrated to America on New Year’s Day, 1941, and quickly opened a portrait studio on the Upper West Side. Working to make ends meet, he did commercial and portrait work, and documented the efforts and accomplishments of Jewish social service organizations throughout New York, including hospitals, orphanages, camps, cultural centers, schools, and worked for immigrant aid societies to document successive waves of immigrants and survivors who arrived on American shores. Vishniac’s work in America from the 1940s represents a previously unknown treasure-trove of material. Imagine our delight and surprise, then, when we discovered his portraits of renowned blues singer and guitarist Josh White, performing at Café Society, New York’s first integrated nightclub, in Greenwich Village, 1944, and just in time for African American History Month.

Café Society owner Barney Josephson, the son of Latvian Jewish immigrants, “wanted a club where blacks and whites worked together behind the footlights and sat together out in front,” later recalling that “there wasn’t, so far as I knew, a place like it in New York or in the country.” At a time when the famed Kit Kat Club did not allow African Americans to enter, and even the Cotton Club in Harlem only permitted a few African American celebrities to quietly occupy discrete seats in the back, Billie Holiday sang in Café Society’s opening show in 1938. In fact, Holiday gave her first public performance of “Strange Fruit” at Café Society, in 1939, with a backdrop of wall murals by some of the village’s most celebrated artists. The Photo League used to throw fundraisers at Café Society, and perhaps some were in attendance on the evenings that Vishniac documented the performances and convivial atmosphere of New York’s first integrated nightclub.

Four years after Vishniac took these photographs, the legendary cafe closed its doors, one of many victims of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Thankfully, these pictures remain as testament to Barney Josephson’s groundbreaking vision, to the broader, grim reality of segregation, and to the inestimable contribution of African American musicians to American cultural life in the 1940s.

Recently discovered, Roman Vishniac’s negatives and contact sheets of White and other entertainers at the Café Society are currently being digitized and catalogued by the Roman Vishniac Archive at the International Center of Photography.

Maya Benton, Adjunct Curator, ICP

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2 Responses to ICP and the Roman Vishniac Archive Celebrate African American History Month

  1. Pingback: Roots Music and the Blues in Photography | International Center of Photography Library

  2. Astonishing! I love Cafe Society and imagining Vishniac there is really gratifying.

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