Ruth Orkin (1921-85) was a US photographer who travelled the world during her groundbreaking career. In an era when the vast majority of professional photographers were men, Orkin carved her own very distinctive path, taking captivating black and white images of everyday life.
Orkin had the photographer’s gift of capturing candid moments that were also full of humanity, warmth, and the glamour and optimism of the era. She was also a fearless adventurer, unafraid to be independent and travel alone.
Her most memorable picture was taken in Florence, Italy in 1951. Here she met a 23-year old fellow American woman called Ninalee Craig, also known as Jinx Allen, who was a painter. The meeting led to a photograph titled ‘American Girl in Italy’, which is now regarded as a classic portrait of a female flâneuse juxtaposed with the male gaze.
In the photograph, Jinx is walking past a group of about 15 men who are openly staring at her. She holds her head high and avoids eye contact as she clutches onto her shawl and bag, looking both assured but also very conscious of the attention she is receiving.
Orkin has said that the photograph is meant to be a celebration of independence and an adventurous spirit, rather than a more sinister comment on gender roles. It has recently received some academic attention in the wake of the #metoo movement, but Jinx explained to The Guardian that the point is for the viewer to interpret the image for themselves.
She said: “My expression is not one of distress, that was just how I stalked around the city. I saw myself as Beatrice of Dante’s Divine Comedy. You had to walk with complete assurance and maintain a dignity at all times.”
“The last thing you would do would be to look them in the eye and smile. I did not want to encourage them. This image has been interpreted in a sinister way but it was quite the opposite. They were having fun and so was I.”
Jinx went on to explain that the photograph was taken in the Piazza della Repubblica and was not at all staged. American Girl in Italy was published as part of a series titled Don’t be Afraid to Travel Alone in Cosmopolitan Magazine. It was also later used as a promotional campaign for Kodak and displayed at large scale in Grand Central Station, New York.
Orkin’s pioneering brand of street photography earned her international recognition, and her work has been extensively exhibited around the world and is held in many private collections. She has been named one of the top women photographers in the US and her work has inspired a whole new generation of image makers.
At once natural and glamorous, Orkin’s images are fun but can also be poignant and thought-provoking. Her influences range from Holywood to music but it is the warmth and humanity that lends her images substance.
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