Botticelli Girl: Solving the Mystery of a Photograph That Has Haunted Me for Decades



She gazes down and out of frame, her eyes unblinking, the tendrils of her hair adrift across her face.
She is lost in thought, in a world of her own, her image frozen for eternity by the rush of light on silver nitrate. She is…wistful? Pensive? Memserised? Serene?
It is the kind of look we get in our eyes just before someone snaps their fingers, jolts us out of our reverie, and offers us a penny for our thoughts. But this picture, to me, is priceless.
I first came across it is a teenager, whille flipping through a remarkable book called “The Family of Man“, showcasing the human experience through a collection of photographs from around the world.
All the photographs are in black-and-white. They are uncaptioned, grouped loosely according to theme, linked only by a quote or a line from a story or poem.
In this case, it was Ann Frank’s observation, jotted down in her diary while she living in Amsterdam during World War II: “I still believe that people are really good at heart.”
And so I would linger on the page and gaze at the photograph of this girl, wondering not so much what she was thinking, as who she was and where she came from, and whether it was just a coincidence that she looked so much like this girl in this painting in another book that I used to get lost in for hours and hours. (I hasten to add that this was all before television and the Internet came to South Africa.)
Then, the other day, I thought of her again, while adjusting the books on my shelf, and it cocured to me, for the first time, that I might be able to find out who she was and where she came from.
I asked the Internet, using The Family of Man and the name of the photographer, Paul Himmel, as my points of reference. And now I know.

Photographer Paul Himmel and family have been summering on Fire Island since the 1950’s. His headshot of dancer Patricia McBride on the beach, the young beauty’s hair surf-drenched, is aptly titled “Botticelli Girl”. This iconic portrait study was featured in the landmark “Family of Man” exhibition (MOMA, NY 1955).

She was a dancer, on a beach, thinking about something on a summer’s day.
Some cultures believe that the camera can steal someone’s soul.
This photograph proves that the camera, in the right hands, with the right subject, at the right moment, can forever reveal that soul to the world.




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