American Girl in Italy – Ruth Orkin

Great photo, great story.

American Girl in Italy

It is almost a cliché to say that when Jinx walked across a different world when she traversed the Piazza della Republica in Florence on that August day exactly sixty years ago. But that world was truly different — in a sense, unfathomably different — to someone born in the 1980s. Even today, after all advances in modern communications, online bookings and airtravel, travelling alone can be daunting. But imagine doing exactly that sixty years ago, when the world was a more intolerant place — which was what Jinx and her photographer did.

In 1951, Ninalee “Jinx” Allen Craig was a 23 year old student who had recently quit her job in New York to embark on her own grand tour of Europe. In Florence, while lodging at a cheap hostel overlooking the Arno, she met another American girl who was also travelling solo — the 29-year old aspiring photojournalist named Ruth Orkin.

Together, they decided that they would do a photoessay documenting what it was like to be a woman travelling alone in Europe in the 1950s. In Don’t be Afraid to Travel Alone, Orkin photographed Criag shopping in the markets, crossing traffic, riding a carriage and flirting at a cafe. The photos were powerful, but one photograph stood head and shoulders above the others — and it made Orkin famous.

On August 22nd 1951, Orkin saw Jinx walking through a crowd on the Piazza della Republica, and being ogled. She turned and took one shot, and asked Jinx to walk through again. Orkin also asked the man on motorcycle to tell the other men not to look at the camera. For these reasons, the photo was considered to have been “staged” but contact sheets reveal that Orkin took only two frames.

The image of a young woman walking unaccompanied through a thicket of leering men was provocative; the figure of the whistling young man grabbing his crotch was considered to have extremely obscene and was airbrushed out for years to come. But the photo nonetheless became a bestselling poster. But Jinx does not believe it was exploitative:

It’s not a symbol of harassment. It’s a symbol of a woman having an absolutely wonderful time!

I clutched my shawl to me because that sheaths the body. It was my protection, my shield. I was walking through a sea of men. I was enjoying every minute of it. They were Italian and I love Italians.

Indeed, she returned to New York and later married an Italian widower. As for Orkin, she would go on to have a productive career, but the above photo forever remained her only masterpiece.