An American Girl in Italy, Florence

1951, Printed 1980s
Silver Gelatin Photograph

Lower left stamped: American Girl in Italy, Florence, 1951; lower right stamped: © Ruth Orkin 1952-1980; verso signed, titled, dated by Mary Engel, Estate Executor, in pencil.

Frame: 21 x 25 inches

Ruth Orkin’s breakthrough, however, came in 1951. LIFE magazine had just sent Orkin to Israel for an assignment, and after completion, she traveled across Italy. When in Florence, she met the 23 year old Jinx Allen (Ninalee Craig), a painter and fellow American who would become Orkin’s model for the series originally titled ‘Don’t Be Afraid to Travel Alone’ – a photo essay based on their joint experience as women traveling solo throughout post-war Europe. The photo essay was published a year later in Cosmopolitan Magazine, and included tips for the female traveler. Orkin’s daughter, Mary Engel, in a 1995 catalogue essay explains how the photo series came about; “My mother had an idea. Come on, she said, ‘let’s go out and shoot pictures of what it’s really like. In the morning, while the Italian women were inside preparing lunch, Jinx gawked at streets, asked military officials for directions, fumbled with lire and flirted in cafes while my mother photographed her.”

It was during this shoot that Orkin took what would become not only her most notable photograph, but one of the iconic images of 20th century photography. The photograph, titled ‘American Girl In Italy’ shows Jinx being stared at as she passes through a group of men on the street in Florence. She wears a long black dress, and looks visibly uncomfortable while clutching her sketchbook and covering herself with her shawl. Jinx is placed at the very center of the frame with 15 men surrounding her on the street, which creates further tension and is clearly an outlet of Orkin’s filmic eye. On directing the viewer’s eye, Orking said; “Being a photographer is making people look at what I want them to look at.”

And she does exactly that. The image could to be a still from a Hollywood movie. The photograph almost comes to life and the viewer can imagine Jinx walking down the street and hear a dramatic melody in the background.

American Girl in Italy depicts a state of female flanerie, while also highlighting the theme of unwelcome attention of men. There was a recently renewed interest in the image due to the increased global attention for the #metoo movement. Mary Engel, as director of the Ruth Orkin Photo Archives, further comments saying; “I get a lot of requests from academics and professors who want to get into the background of it, but I tried not to editorialize it too much. The whole point is for the viewer to interpret it for themselves.”

Jinx’s experience, on the other hand, was far from uncomfortable. In an article for The Guardian, she explains the encounter saying; “My expression is not one of distress, that was just how I stalked around the city. I saw myself as Beatrice of Dante’s Divine Comedy. You had to walk with complete assurance and maintain a dignity at all times. The last thing you would do would be to look them in the eye and smile. I did not want to encourage them. This image has been interpreted in a sinister way but it was quite the opposite. They were having fun and so was I.”

On the contrary, the photograph speaks of a celebration of fearlessness, independence and vitality. Orkin’s series of Jinx in Florence challenges gender roles, with one woman in front of the camera and another behind, a progressive notion for the era and dynamics when the photograph was taken.

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