American girl in Italy is the title given to one of the most iconic photograph of all times. Today it has become the symbol of women empowerment.
Ruth Orkin: a trailblazer in photojournalism
It was back in 1951 when 29 year old photographer Ruth Orkin was sent by Life Magazine to Israel on a press trip with the Israeli Philharmonic and from there she then decided to spend a few weeks in Florence, Italy. She was used to travel by herself and to take pictures along the way. She probably had her artistic attitude by her mother, a silent film actress during the golden age of Hollywood. And was probably because of her mother’s job that she got close to photography.
Prior to become a freelance photojournalist she tried film making but the 1940s cinema industry was not an inclusive environment. This did not stop her though. She moved to New York, leaving the golden shores of California behind to embrace the vibrant artistic scene of the Big Apple. Here she found the opportunities that the west coast failed to give her. She was entrusted by The New York Times to do some work as a nightclub photographer in 1945. It was the beginning of a skyrocketing career. From 1945 to 1952. Magazines like Life, Look and This Week hired Ruth and send her around the globe to portray the major world happenings as well as the unknown (up to that moment) details of ordinary life abroad, paving the way for female photographers.
American Girl in Italy: a self portrait
Ruth’s trip to Florence in 1951 came after more than a decade of solo traveling around the world. It all started with a bike ride. From Los Angeles to New York when Ruth was only seventeen years old. This tells you a lot of her will to do what she felt and wanted to do despite the role assigned to women in 1930s America.
An American girl discovering Florence
Once in cradle of the Renaissance, as Italians call the city of Florence, she met fellow American Jinx Allen (who will later change her name to Ninalee Craig), a painter. The had two things in common: they were both American and they were both far from home, in a foreign country with all that this entails. Different language, different architecture, different food. Ruth and Jinx surely discussed about how does it feel to be in a position of not knowing that much about every single thing that surrounds you when abroad, about what’s really like to be a young woman in a foreign country. They could have just left the answers to those questions written on a napkin of a cafe along the river Arno but Ruth had the idea that will change her professional reputation forever and that will leave an indelible mark in the history of photography.
According to an interview appeared on Today.com in May 2018 Ruth and Jinx decided to spend a morning walking down the city streets of Florence
“with Orkin shooting photographs of the statuesque, 6-foot tall Craig to show what it was like to travel alone as a woman. Other frames from the shoot include pics of Craig swathed in her bright orange shawl, haggling over wares at a market, asking for directions and flirting in cafes”.Ninalee Craig aka Jinx Allen, Today.com
The result of this half-a-morning on the cobbled streets of Florence was a set of pictures among which the most iconic “American Girl in Italy“. The photograph depicts Jinx walking on a sidewalk in Piazza della Repubblica surrounded by a group of men that stares at her, some with a sly grin on their face, some others just looking at Jinx with curiosity.
When asked in a 2011 interview if she was afraid or felt uncomfortable in that situation Jinx replied “Isn’t it wonderful? Aren’t the Italians wonderful? … They make you feel appreciated!’” highlighting how opposite, to the first thing that would come into your mind when looking at that picture, her feelings were.
But it wasn’t just her feelings. The idea of shooting pictures while living a day in Florence was a shared subject. Both Ruth and Jinx decided to embark on this journey of telling that story.
“Some people want to use it as a symbol of harassment of women, but that’s what we’ve been fighting all these years,” said Craig. “It’s not a symbol of harassment. It’s a symbol of a woman having an absolutely wonderful time!”Ninalee Craig aka Jinx Allen, Today.com
By shooting pictures to her new friend, Ruth is telling her own story. The same story that Jinx lived through her time in Europe. A guy riding a bike while staring at a 6-foot tall painter, as portrayed in a less famous but still worth of a mention photo called “Jinx with a cop”, is actually what also Ruth experienced. Jinx become then the face of Ruth’s voice telling the story of an American Girl in Italy.
American Girl(s) in Italy: Tia (Milan), Kacie (Florence) and Sarah (Sorrento)
The bustling hours of a mid-of-May morning in Florence aren’t just a thing of the past. Even though it has been more than 50 years since that particular subject, the American girl in Italy, became a relevant topic it seems that it is still an important matter of discussion. A discussion that happens on social media rather than on the pages of magazines like the ones Ruth Orkin used to work for. It is the case of the plenty of girls that every year decide to move abroad either to complete their studies or to simply experience what living in a foreign country is like. Among the many talented, brilliant and independent women who decided to take on social media to share their side of the story, three are relevant to our narrative.
Tia Taylor: Milan
Tia was born and raised in Connecticut and flew to Milan to enroll at the Bocconi University, the most prestigious university in Italy. After her graduation she decided to stay in the capital of fashion. While studying she created her own youtube channel where she shared opinion about living abroad, dealing with language and cultural barriers and lifestyle. She now has an audience of almost 500.000 people on the social platforms she uses.
Kacie Rose: Florence
Her story sounds a bit like the one told by the movie “Under the Tuscan Sun”. A disappointment at home leads to a plane ticket to Italy. Tuscany to be more precise. Here there is the adjust-to-a-different-culture phase followed by the I-met-true-love phase followed by “you know what? I am happy, healthy and starting my own business”. Today Kacie has more than 400.000 followers on Instagram and almost a million on Tik Tok plus she organizes tours to Italy for her fellow Americans with Kacie Rose Travel
Sarah Thompson: Sorrento
It’s gonna be just a semester in Rome. That’s it! A few months later she is waiting table in a bar on the Amalfi coast not thinking about her then boyfriend who dumped her on a one-minute zoom call. And here is where she met her now husband. Particularly popular for her posts about the maternity experience in Italy compared to the on in the US, Sarah has now 200.000 followers on her social media and organizes tour of the Amalfi coast with her company luxamatravel.com
The stories of these strong women with an adventurous soul truly reflect the one of Ruth Orkin. Independent as she was they have decided to set a milestone in their life which is now split in two halves: life before moving to Italy and life after moving to Italy. The exact same thing that happend to Ruth when she took the decision to move to New York. The same thing that happened to Jinx when she said yes to an American photographer who asked her to be herself amongst Italians. By looking at their pictures, by watching their videos you can literally see what Jinx meant when she was asked about the meaning of the photograph “American girl in Italy” and said: “It’s a symbol of a woman having an absolutely wonderful time!”
Pictures photo credit :
American Girl in Italy, Florence, 1951
Jinx with a cop, Florence, 1951
Copyright 1952, 1980 Ruth Orkin
Used with special permission of the Ruth Orkin Photo Archive
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