A great photograph can’t remain static: It has a subsequent life-history much like that of its subjects.
An American Girl in Italy , Ruth Orkin’s masterly evocation of time and place, turns 60 on August 22, and that frozen moment in post-war Florence is now being feted as one of the camera’s most vivid achievements. Is it possible to look at the black-and-white image Ms. Orkin caught in the Piazza della Repubblica and not feel a part of the passing scene?
Eye-catching engagement is almost automatic: The harder task is to determine what the picture means – or what it’s come to mean over the six decades since the solitary 23-year-old Jinx Allen strode through the assessing gaze of no less than 15 attentive Italian males.
Ninalee Craig appreciates the nuances of photographic evolution better than most people who’ve followed the American Girl’s 60-year progress through cultural history. But that’s hardly surprising since she’s the girl in the picture, the stylish young New Yorker who’s now an exuberant 83-year-old arts patron living in an expansive Toronto condo.
“In my history with the picture,” she says, “many women resent the image. They think it’s insulting. They think I couldn’t walk down the street without being bothered. But I call it being appreciated. I wasn’t being harassed.”
She should know. Or should she? A powerful and popular image comes to exist separately from its creative team, and the former Jinx Allen now has to contend with cultural interpreters who look at the photo and see fear, not composure, leering machismo confinement and not the liberated spirit of female adventure.
Ms. Craig will hear none of it. She still shudders about the time the picture was used to illustrate a 1990s women’s magazine story on sexual harassment, as if she were the iconic representation of what it meant to be female, alone and vulnerable. In her mind, she isn’t trapped in some prefeminist horror show. Instead she draws on her literary studies at Sarah Lawrence College to cast herself as the beautiful Beatrice, elusive object of the poet Dante’s artistic admiration.
“Can Beatrice look vulnerable?” she demands. “I’m totally contained. I’m self-assured. I own the street. I’m walking in total confidence. I’m not in the least flustered or bothered or apprehensive.”
We can take her at her word and still have qualms – what about the man on the left who’s grabbing his crotch and seems to be voicing something an independent young American girl shouldn’t have to hear? How Dantesque is that?
Ms. Craig laughs, a big, hearty, boisterous bark of a laugh. “That part of the picture was censored for years. But to me it’s not really that obvious. For an Italian male, it’s an automatic gesture, they do it for luck, it’s not directed at you – it’s just part of their reassurance.”
It was a different time and a different place, with a much different set of codes and rules. “This is Italy almost in its childhood,” says Adriana Frisenna of the Italian Cultural Institute in Toronto. So can we really see a 60-year-old image the way it appeared on Aug. 22, 1951? Part of the photo’s widespread appeal, particularly for those of Italian descent, comes from its powerful sense of nostalgia, a dreamy dolce vita that’s never far from stark social realism.
“The picture is everywhere in Italy,” says Ms. Craig, “particularly in the men’s room of bars and restaurants. Italian males look at it and they laugh, they grin, they say, ‘That’s us.’ These are spoiled Italian men, just hanging around at 10:30 in the morning. But you also have to remember that this was 1951, just five years after the war, a hungry time in Italy. Most of these men didn’t have jobs.”
Would the photo have the same resonance if it were called The Unemployed? And yet there’s no desolation, no emptiness in the picture – the American girl, seeking out the glories of the Renaissance with her downcast eyes and protective shawl, can singlehandedly animate the piazza and make all those men feel completely reborn.
“It amazes me that Ruth Orkin got it perfectly,” says Stephen Bulger, whose Toronto gallery is presenting an exhibition of the late photographer’s Florence shoot to mark the picture’s 60th anniversary. Visitors can study Ms. Orkin’s contact sheets and see how the celebrated American Girl image fits in with the other photos of Jinx Allen shopping, haggling, deciphering her oversized banknotes and riding a Vespa side-saddle.
“You can see from the context that the picture was part of a project, it wasn’t a quick grab or a lucky shot,” says Mr. Bulger. “It’s clear the photographer is working hard to get a picture like that.”
That professional dedication to detail has generated its own controversy over the photo’s 60-year history: whisperings that the picture was staged like Robert Doisneau’s The Kiss, that it was too good to be true. The contact sheets do indeed show that Ms. Orkin was a perfectionist who took two runs at the shot, which means that Jinx Allen walked the gauntlet twice in the interests of art.
But Ninalee Craig wants to set history straight yet again. “That picture was not posed. It was not set up. That’s why people relate to it. I was walking along the street at 10:30 in the morning on the hottest day of the year. Ruth was ahead of me. She turned around and saw it. One snap. ‘Jinx, go back and walk that again.’ Thirty seconds. Took it again. Then we went on.”
They went on. Ruth Orkin died in 1985, completing her career with a remarkable series of housebound photos taken from her Manhattan window. Jinx Allen worked in advertising, married and divorced an Italian count, married a Canadian steel executive, was widowed, moved to Toronto and became an avid supporter of the Canadian Opera Company – and in late life found that she had turned into a cult figure.
“I find it rather surprising and amazing. ‘Oh my God, you’re the one, you’re alive.’ I’m an object of curiosity. But I try to turn my celebrity into something positive, because there’s a lesson to be learned from the picture: Always be ready. You never know when it’s going to be there.”