Roman Vishniac, [Boy playing ping-pong, summer camp of the Polish Society for Safeguarding the Health of the Jewish Population (TOZ), Slonim], ca. 1935-38

©Mara Vishniac Kohn, courtesy International Center of Photography


Roman Vishniac, [Women playing ping-pong, New York State], ca. late 1940s-50s

©Mara Vishniac Kohn, courtesy International Center of Photography


Roman Vishniac, [Boy playing ping-pong, Juedische Oberschule (Jewish middle school) of the Juedische Gemeinde (Jewish Community), Grosse Hamburgerstrasse, Berlin], ca. 1936

©Mara Vishniac Kohn, courtesy International Center of Photography


Roman Vishniac, [Cookie the Chimpanzee playing ping-pong, Bronx Zoo, New York], 1943

©Mara Vishniac Kohn, courtesy International Center of Photography

Originated as an after-dinner parlor game among England’s upper classes in the 1880s, we know ping-pong today, in addition to its perennial pursuit in suburban rec rooms, for its role in thawing relations between the United States and China in 1972, when an exchange of ping-pong players between the two powers paved the way for Nixon’s famed visit to Beijing.

Although Vishniac took these previously unpublished photographs in tumultuous times, they present no signs of global political conflict or rapidly shifting borders. They do not even capture a ball ricocheting between two swinging paddles. Instead, our attention is drawn to the poised, composed focused bodies of the players, entirely absorbed in the rhythmic activity of the game. Taken at a Jewish summer camp for impoverished children run by Jewish relief organizations in Eastern Europe ca. 1935-38, a borscht belt resort in upstate New York in the late 1940s-50s, a Jewish day school in Nazi Berlin ca. 1936, and the Bronx Zoo in 1943, this selection demonstrates the breadth, depth, and variety of the unpublished negatives in the Roman Vishniac Archive, where a surprise awaits the seeker at every turn.

James Levinsohn

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