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November 5, 2011

Photos of an American Girl in Italy in 1951, Taken by Ruth Orkin

Ruth Orkin (1921–1985) was an award-winning photojournalist and filmmaker. Orkin was the only child of Mary Ruby, a silent-film actress, and Samuel Orkin, a manufacturer of toy boats called Orkin Craft. She grew up in Hollywood in the heyday of the 1920s and 1930s. At the age of 10, she received her first camera, a 39 cent Univex. She began by photographing her friends and teachers at school. At 17 years old she took a monumental bicycle trip across the United States from Los Angeles to New York City to see the 1939 World’s Fair, and she photographed along the way.

Orkin is perhaps best known for her photograph, American Girl in Italy, taken in 1951. The subject of the now-iconic photograph was the 23-year-old Ninalee Craig (known at that time as Jinx Allen). The photograph was conceived inadvertently when Orkin noticed the men ogling Allen as she walked down the street. Orkin asked Allen to walk down the street again, to be sure she had the shot.

Craig met Orkin in Florence in 1951, a time when it was unusual to find Americans in Europe, especially women traveling solo.

Craig had saved up money from a teaching job in New York. Taking her mother’s advice, she planned to travel Europe until the money ran out. She had visited France, Spain and England before settling in Florence to take art classes.

Orkin had just wrapped up a shoot in Israel for LIFE magazine. The two met at the American Express office, the place for sending letters and telegrams, making phone calls and exchanging money before the era of mass telecommunications.

The women reveled in meeting each other, especially when they discovered they were staying in the same hotel for $1 a night (meals included). As they bonded over their shared passion for travel, Orkin proposed a photo shoot portraying their adventures.

“Ruth said, ‘Hey, you know what, I could probably make a bit of money if we horse around and show what it’s like to be a woman alone,’” Craig recalled.

The two hit the streets of Florence the next morning around 10 a.m. The shot of Craig passing by the men was one of the first Orkin snapped. She followed it up with another shot from a different angle before the two continued on to capture familiar scenes from Italy: cafes, statues, piazzas, cobblestone streets.

The shoot took about two hours and the pair went their separate ways, though not for long. As those rare Americans in Europe, they bumped into each other again in Paris and Venice and took more photos for Orkin’s series.

The photos ran in Cosmopolitan magazine in 1952 in a photo essay, “When You Travel Alone...”, offering tips on “money, men and morals to see you through a gay trip and a safe one.”



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