An ‘American girl in Italy’ looks back

Updated
"American Girl in Italy" photo
"American Girl in Italy" photo
Ruth Orkin

Almost 60 years ago, a camera captured the moment every young girl has experienced while living abroad. Amidst cat calls and gawking Italian men, a young American woman tries to walk down the street with her head held high. With a little luck and an expertly timed snap, Ruth Orkin created an icon.

On Monday, “American Girl in Italy” turns 60 and the subject — Ninalee Craig, now 83 — is speaking out about the image.

It’s easy to see how the picture of a young girl surrounded by men can be taken as a symbol of harassment. However, Craig told Today it is the exact opposite:

“Some people want to use it as a symbol of harassment of women, but that’s what we’ve been fighting all these years. It’s not a symbol of harassment. It’s a symbol of a woman having an absolutely wonderful time!”

What was Craig doing in Italy in 1951 to have such a wonderful time? The then 23-year-old left a job in New York City for third class accommodations on a ship heading to Europe. Craig did something extremely rare for that day and age; she traveled by herself. For more than six months, Craig explored France, Spain, and Italy living on the cheap.

While staying at a hotel on the Arno River in Florence for $1 a day, Craig met another young, female traveler and photographer, Ruth Orkin. Craig and Orkin, then 29-years-old, bonded over traveling along. “We both found that we were having a wonderful time, and only some things were a little difficult,” Craig recounted to msnbc.com.

The two decided to document what it was truly like to travel alone as a young woman. The next day Orkin snapped photos of Craig as she wandered the streets of Florence. In her interview with msnbc.com, Craig described the two-hour long shoot of Craig admiring art, flirting with locals, and asking for directions as “literally horsing around.”

Orkin captured her iconic work “American Girl in Italy” that day; Her contact sheets show only two frames of that street scene, according to her msnbc interview.

Looking at the photo, it’s hard not to believe the men were posed. When asked about the staging, Craig said, “No, no, no! You don’t have 15 men in a picture and take just two shots. The men were just there … The only thing that happened was that Ruth Orkin was wise enough to ask me to turn around and go back.”

In the interest of full disclosure, “American Girl in Italy” has been hanging in my bedroom since I returned from a semester in Italy. To me, it summed up the experience of being thrilled to travel alone in a foreign city. To her, the real message is female independence:

“Men who see the picture always ask me: Was I frightened? Did I need to be protected? Was I upset? They always have a manly concern for me. Women, on the other hand, look at that picture, and the ones who have become my friends will laugh and say, ‘Isn’t it wonderful? Aren’t the Italians wonderful? … They make you feel appreciated!’”

Read more about Orkin’s photo here.

An 'American girl in Italy' looks back

Updated