Everyone should be familiar with Ruth Orkin’s most reknown image, the iconic 1951 “American Girl in Italy”. You’ve surely seen it a hundred times. If not, then you have now. As long as I can remember I have loved this image for what it captures.
Ruth Orkin was a profound trail blazer. At 17 she bicycled and hitchhiked across the US from LA to NY snapping pictures. Later she became a full-fledged photographer working in NY. She was sent on assignment to Israel and from there traveled to Italy.
She met a painter and fellow American Ninalee Craig who had just spent 6 months traveling all through Europe alone. Solo female travelers were extremely uncommon for the 50s. These two gals shared the experiences of being young women traveling on their own. “Come on,” Ruth said, “lets go out and shoot pictures of what it’s really like.”
And so the image of Ninalee walking down the streets of Florence, clutching her shawl, seemingly gawked by a dozen men, was captured. It has become a symbol of harassment over the years. Though Ninalee insists it is about woman having a good time. But whatever the intent when taking the shot it’s struck a cord with many, men and women alike.
I have always seen a level of harassment in the men and determination upon Ninalee’s face. I found strength and resilience reflected as I peered upon its reflection. For me, it became a symbol of how woman should walk in the world with their head held high, moving forward, trailblazing in the face of obstacles.
I was raised at the height of the woman’s’ movement. And admire greatly the adventurous and free lives these ladies lived. Honestly I’d like to live that way now. This image has always been a symbol, a celebration really, of how young, strong, independent woman live their lives in what was and is in many ways still a male dominated world. Trust me, I work in finance and this is still in force(d).
Honestly it IS nice to be admired. And Italian men certainly know how to appreciate a beautiful woman. But I struggle with the fact that this image now lives on the wall in the men’s bathroom at my office. Somehow the location lends more to the undertone of harassment than women’s strength and empowerment.
A male friend once responded, when asked why men on construction sites catcall women as they walk past, “It’s not about you.” With bewilderment on our faces he continued. “It is about us as men negatively bonding, one upping each other.
Perhaps this is why the photo lives where it lives. But I am planning to move it out of there immediately. Even the wall of the Ladies room would be more appropriate. Am I wrong?
Perhaps I’ll paste a picture of a man over Ninalee’s image to test my theory.