The Photography of Ruth Orkin

American girl in Italy.

NUVO Magazine: The Photography of Ruth Orkin

It’s one of the most iconic images of the 20th century: a young woman walks through a crowd of gawking men in an Italian city and tries to keep her composure. You can just hear the whistles and catcalls. The subject can be seen to be both vulnerable and stoic: a foreign woman alone navigates the shoals of new experience and, by so doing, inspires generations that followed to seek out the world for themselves on their own terms.

The photograph American Girl in Italy came about, as art often does, from a comingling of happenstance and inspiration. The setting was Florence, in the summer of 1951. American photographer Ruth Orkin met the lovely Jinx Allen, then 23 and standing over six feet tall, in the Berchielli Hotel. They were both in search of life-affirming encounters, the kind that come when you chuck it all and head for il bel paese.

Within an hour of their chance meeting, they were in the streets of Florence to document whatever came their way. The group of men in Piazza della Repubblica provided their first photo op. Orkin snapped twice and it was over in 30 seconds, but the scene she captured would go on to become a world-famous image and a best-selling poster.

The two women remained lifelong friends, and Ms. Allen took on an Italian life and married a Venetian count. She still has the keys to the palazzo on the Grand Canal that was her late husband’s ancestral home.

Orkin died in 1985. Her muse, who now goes by the name Ninalee Allen Craig, is 80 years old, and has lived in the Toronto area for the past 35 years. Of the famous photograph from her youth, she says with a laugh, “It wasn’t good for a girl’s reputation to be seen that way.” The image was considered risqué at the time, and first appeared in the magazine Cosmopolitan to illustrate an article on single female travellers. She says no one expected it to take off decades later and become an icon of independence, mounted on the walls of young women’s bedrooms and dormitories and gracing the covers of diaries, journals and calendars. Even the clothes she wore have been duplicated and mark­eted to tourists.

Ms. Allen Craig defends the photograph as a testament to free spirit. “I never felt threatened or bothered—I knew I was being appreciated.” With eyes downcast and clutching her shawl and bag, she moves through the men with almost angelic grace, and she says the scene was not staged or rehearsed. She remembers, “Ruth called to the man on the scooter not to look at the camera. I was not told what to do or how to look.”

She has an original print of the photograph, and on occasion signs poster copies at charitable events. Content to be living in Toronto, she admits to having revisited the very spot in Florence where the photograph was taken, just to relive that very public moment of her youth—a moment immortalized forever. 

American Girl in Italy photo ©1952, 1980 Ruth Orkin.