I’d like to begin this year’s list of favorite photographs with Roman Vishniac’s (1897-1990) photograph “The Only Flowers of Her Youth, Warsaw, 1938.“ Vishniac photographically documented the lives of Jews in Eastern Europe on the verge of the holocaust. Many of these were assembled in his 1983 book “A Vanished World.” The story associated with this picture is that the little girl depicted was confined to her bed all winter because she had no shoes. She was kept company only by the flowers on her wall, which were painted painted by her father who was an artist. And these flowers were the only ones that she had ever seen. Today Roman Vishniac, a Russian American photographer is best known for his work on shtetl life. However, he later in life turned, actually returned, his attention to his first great passion biology and photomicroscopy.
The archives of Vishniac’ work is at the International Center for Photography in New York City. The archives are significant because they enable viewers to see not only the works that Vishniac chose to publish in his book but all of them. The world of the Jews in Eastern Europe was complex. like that of all societies.
As the rest of the twentieth century unfolded and now the twenty-first begins to unfold, we are struck by a fundamental sadness. We had hoped that the end of World War II would bring the end of world genocide. But this was not the case. The little girl in the picture becomes a kind of “poster child” for all these victims. She speaks to us of universal despair.
On a photographic level “The only flowers of her youth” resonates with to this despair. We see her face, take note of her surroundings, and we know that there is something wrong. By now we have seen enough images to immediately recognize and relate to them. But, and I think this important, we need the title or caption to really and fully understand it. I have come to realize that there are two types of great portraits: those that need no context and those that do. This is a powerful and moving example of the second type.