Thursday, March 25, 2010

Iconic Photographs: American Girl in Italy / Ruth Orkin

(Click on picture to enlarge)

The Italian café near Burwood Local Court has the above photograph, enlarged and framed, on the wall.

It is by a an American photographer, Ruth Orkin (1921-1985) and it is her signature image and most famous photograph, American Girl in Italy.

The café is favoured by the legal fraternity and recently I overheard a barrister chatting with the other members of his group. He was admiring of the photograph and said that having been to Italy, the photo was very typical of local street scenes. He said this in a laughing manner and his party made similar comments.

The photograph has always struck me as a dark, almost sinister image. The single female being eyed by 15 males, the holding of the shawl across her front almost as a protective gesture, the downcast eyes, the hands in the groins of the men to the left and the legs splayed gesture of the male on the Vespa all contribute to the feeling that the female is not so much a person but prey. I have discussed the photo with the young lady at the café who said that she felt the same way.
The photo dates from 1951 and perhaps our sensibilities have changed in the last 60 years. What may have been, 60 years ago, simply a moment in the meeting of two cultures may now be invested with greater meaning and greater sensitivity,

The following is from:
One of the most beautiful and well known street photographs, American Girl in Italy by Ruth Orkin, was partially staged.

On August 22, 1951, on the Piazza della Repubblica in Florence, Ruth Orkin snapped this image a photograph that made her career. At the time Orkin was a 29 year-old aspiring photojournalist traveling alone in Italy. The main subject, the girl walking in the street while not less than 15 men look at her, was an American art student that Ruth Orkin met at her hotel in Florence. Jinx Allen, the art student who became her model for a photo essay based on their joint experience as women traveling alone in Europe. By chance that day the two walked through the now famous gauntlet of gawking men. Orking turned and photographed Allen behind her. Orkin asked Allen to walk through again, and with that she captured the legendary image. It took only two exposures.

American Girl and the entire photo essay were first published in Cosmopolitan in 1952 with an article titled ‘When you travel alone … tips on money, men, and morals.’ To this day American Girl remains an icon of street photography.

Whether Orkin’s image was posed is not important. The emotion of the moment is so powerful and the visual experience so believable that the image is a powerful narrative no matter how it was made.
What’s your view?


  1. My husband who is half Italian has been talking about this photograph, which he remembers from his childhood, for many years, and was so pleased when I was able to track it down so easily via this blog. Your accompanying comments were very interesting and enlightening for him!

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