Ruth Orkin’s American Girl in Italy is one of the most famous photographs anyone has ever taken, according to gallery owner Stephen Bulger. Which is why, to celebrate the picture’s 60th anniversary this week, Bulger’s Queen West gallery has the work on view, along with other images by the American photographer. The exhibition’s arrival in Toronto is particularly relevant since Orkin’s subject in American Girl, Ninalee Craig, lives here. Craig gave us the low-down on how American Girl in Italy came to be.
1. It was 1951 when Orkin and Craig met in Florence at the American Express office, a spot where ex-pats could collect mail while abroad. Both women were 23. Orkin was making her way back to the U.S. after shooting an assignment in Israel for Life. Craig had journeyed solo to Italy for “Dante, drawing, painting.” Orkin asked the statuesque, 6-foot-tall Craig if she could take pictures of her, to show what it was really like for a young woman to travel alone.
2. “Women’s groups want to use the photograph as an image of harassment,”says Craig. But according to her, despite being leered and whistled at, she was having “the time of my life.” Craig says the expression on her face is “one of being above it all. You best online casino would never walk—even today—through a bunch on men on a road, making eye contact. I was walking with confidence in Florence, a city I knew and loved.”
3. For many years the photograph was considered obscene because of this bent-over whistling man. He holds an umbrella in one hand and his crotch in the other. Craig says that, for years, when the picture was published the man’s hand was airbrushed out.
4. Orkin took her photograph at 10:30 a.m., but according to Craig the street is packed with loitering men because work was scarce in Italy after the Second World War. “The country had been bombed and you could still see the destruction in Florence.” As for why the men look so well turned out, Craig says, “Many were living at home with their parents. Their mothers pressed and ironed their clothes.”
5. “I had a small suitcase and didn’t have a lot of clothes with me,” says Craig, whose Italian sojourn was part of a six-month visit to Europe. Over a black cotton dress, Craig is wearing a brilliant orange shawl that she had bought on a trip to Mexico. Her purse was a horse’s feedbag she picked up in Spain. Her necklace is her grandmother’s locket. In her arms she’s holding material for sketching and drawing.
6. Today, a vintage print of American Girl in Italy is worth $50,000 (though contemporary copies of the work can be purchased for about $2,500 from the Stephen Bulger Gallery). As for Craig, she says, “I was never paid a cent for it. It never occurred to me to ask for money.… I never signed a release.”
“American Girl in Italy” at Stephen Bulger Gallery (1026 Queen St. W.) runs until Aug. 27. Reception: Aug. 20, 2–5 p.m.