Icons: An Interview with the Real “American Girl”

Posted on October 4, 2011

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"American Girl in ITaly, 1951" Copyright 1952, 1980, Ruth Orkin

Photographer Ruth Orkin’s “American Girl in Italy” is probably one of the most widely known and loved images from the 20th century. Orkin, who died in 1985, took the picture a little more than 50 years ago, on August 21, 1951, in the Piazza della Repubblica in Florence, a day after meeting a 23-year-old American woman who was traveling through Europe alone. Her name was Ninalee Allen, known to her friends by a childhood nickname, “Jinx.” A recent graduate of Sarah Lawrence College, she was spending the summer on a great adventure. Her carefree spirit—as well as her beauty and commanding six-foot height, caught Orkin’s attention. She thought she might take a color picture of Allen near the Arno River, which she could sell to a newspaper for a few dollars. And so the stage was set for a remarkable moment and a remarkable photograph.

The picture has beguiled and confounded the world since it was printed as a poster in the 1970s. It has  been seen as a symbol of female powerlessness in a male-dominated world, which is not what Orkin intended. It also has been the subject of debate because Orkin in fact shot it twice—after recording the reaction of the men in the Piazza when Allen walked through, she asked the young woman to walk through again. It was the second entrance that became the famous photo. Did she play too fast and loose with the truth? Does it matter?

I recently wrote about the photograph for the October issue of Smithsonian magazine. (Go here to read my piece.) As part of my research, I went to the best primary source I could find—the American Girl herself. Ninalee Allen is now Ninalee Craig, age 83 and living in Toronto. She is lively, lovely, and very certain that Orkin’s picture reflects the truth of what happened that day. Here is a excerpt of my interview with her.

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Please tell the story of the day you took the picture…

The day, the evening, the time, the mood…All right, I’d graduated from Sarah Lawrence College and had worked for a year and felt that I just really didn’t belong at that time and that period in Manhattan.

 

What had you been working at?

I thought when I graduated that I would conquer the world, and I went in fully armed with psychology and art from Sarah Lawrence. We walk straight ahead believing we can do almost anything—at least I did—and was encouraged to do so. So I went in and began work at Bloomingdales, where I had worked during the summer. But at the age of 22 I headed off to Europe for what I thought was a search. And I really didn’t have any definite plans, but that was what was so wonderful about going to Europe in 1951. And that is what this picture says in reality, if we look at it, and what both Ruth Orkin and I wanted to express.

 

Tell me about that….

Well at no time was I unhappy or harassed in Europe. I was able to go everywhere by  myself, and did. I was sort of fearless, I guess, also too I wasn’t a petite little blonde; I was rather commanding and felt quite sure of myself so that I traveled about France for two months and Spain on busses and made my way everywhere.

So at that moment and in that street in Florence, on a sunny morning, I was certainly not being harassed. But the picture has come to mean something else, I’m afraid. I have a lot of people send me things. For example, it was on a book cover in Germany about women who were being molested, about women in Italy who were having a difficult time.

Neither Ruth Orkin nor I did intended this at all. We met, and it was really on a lark. She was an older, mature woman, she’d just come from Israel when I met her.

Traveling in those days was very different. After the war–it just wasn’t a time of tourism. Of course we had no emails or anything like that. You would meet friends at the American Express office. I could walk in and say, hello, is there any mail for me today? And that was pretty wonderful.

At that time, in Italy, there was so much unemployment. The men in that picture, most were out on the street that morning because there were no jobs. They were really recovering from a very serious war. So they were about while the wives and the mothers were indoors cooking.

It was in the morning, and they were relaxing in the Piazza della Repubblica, and there was not traffic because there were no cars. There was one person who could afford a Lambretta motorscooter—it’s not a Vespa, as many people have said; it’s a Lambretta.

Ruth and I had met the evening before; she had come in from Israel, both of us staying in the Hotel Berchielli—a wonderful hotel right on the Arno River. I could look out of my window and see the Ponte Vecchio and it was quite beautiful to sketch. I was drawing and painting at the time and incredibly content and planning to leave the very next day to go to Siena and the other cities. It was really carefree, as we were in those days.

So Ruth and I were laughing and she said, “What’s it like for you to travel alone?” And I said, “It’s just absolutely wonderful.” We laughed and started to think about the things that a woman traveling alone would encounter.

What happened was, she asked if she could take a picture of me, in color, down at the  river. She said, “If I can take a picture of you in color and sell it to the International Herald Tribune [newspaper], I’d get five dollars. And I said, “Sure,” and she said, “When are you getting out of town tomorrow?” And I said, “I hope to get out around noon or one, and she said, “Oh, would you just do that in the morning with me, and I said sure.  We also thought it would be funny to take some pictures of spoofing some of the problems that we had encountered in Florence, but nothing was definite planned.

 

Let’s talk about the moment Ruth and you took the famous picture.

So the next day we shot some pictures at the Arno, and we were about to enter the Piazza della Repubblica. Ruth turned around, and she said, “Oh, my gosh!” She snapped one picture…if you have a chance to see the contact sheet, it tells the whole story. Ruth said, “Ah, wonderful stuff, and she took the picture, then she said, “No, please, let’s try it one more time.” She didn’t arrange anyone or anything. The men were that way in the first picture, which you can see on the contact sheet, and in the second picture, and then we went right on. Ruth was very much an in-your-face photographer, she was just as brave as she could be. And so she looked at the man on the Lambretta, and she, “Oh what a great idea, could Jinx jump on that?

 

And after that, as I have read, she asked the man to ask his friends if they would sort of just stay where they were and not look at the camera while you repeated your walk through the Piazza…

Yes. But it wasn’t contrived. It was not set up, and it wasn’t posed. It was what was occurring in Piazza della Repubblica that August morning. And it happened when I would walk around the city. I was six feet tall—there were not that many women in general just walking around, and certainly very few who were as tall as I.

 

The expression on your face….

I’ve been asked about it before, and the truth is that when I walked around Florence and was alone I imagined myself as Beatrice from Dante’s Devine Comedy. At Sarah Lawrence I had had Joseph Campbell for three years, for myth and mythology, so I was immersed in that. Sarah Lawrence was just extraordinary. I also had Robert Fitzgerald. Robert Fitzgerald was a titan on the earth in the 1940s and 1950s. He had translated successfully, and beautifully, an edition of the Divine Comedy.  And I had spent months studying the Divine Comedy. So for me to be in Florence actually for the first time and walking around, I was Beatrice. I was having a wonderful time. I even had a postcard that is terribly funny, showing Beatrice walking along the Arno River and Dante clutching his heart as he saw her. I mean it was just all too corny. Well, when you’re 21, or 22, or 23, you do things like.

 

And the clothes you were wearing in the photo….

The New Look had come in, so I had the long dress. The purse is actually a horse’s feed bag I’d picked up in Spain, and the shawl was a Mexiccan rebozo I’d picked in San Miguel de Allende in 1948. I still have those. I’m rather frugal with my clothes.

 

The debate about this picture goes on and on. I think it has something to do with the misconception about the nature of photography. We expect photography to be completely reflective of reality, and it is never completely reflective of reality.

Yes, and yet that picture I think is. And I think it can be given full credit for that. Those men were not arranged, they were not told how to look. That is how they were in August 1951. The proof is in the pudding, in that there is an element in the picture that people connect to. It is not posed. But I’m always amazed that people are still debating about it.

 

 

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