19 November 2012

American Girl Abroad

"Couple in MG" Ruth Orkin (1951)

Florence, 1951. Ruth Orkin, a young American photographer, was relaxing in the Italian city after finishing an assignment in Israel for Life magazine. At her hotel she met another young American woman, Jinx Allen, who was spending six months touring Europe. The two hit it off and swapped their tales of travelling alone. Orkin thought it would be fun to capture on film what it was like to be a single woman on her own in a foreign country. The result was a series of wonderful black and white photographs with Jinx as the woman traveller.

"American Girl in Italy" Ruth Orkin (1951)

The most famous of the images made that day is “American Girl in Italy,” which has been reproduced as a poster countless times and hung on the wall of many a young woman’s dorm room or flat (I myself had a postcard of it on the front of my dorm room door). There have been various interpretations of the image but as Ninalee Craig (Jinx’s name now) simply says “It’s a symbol of a woman having an absolutely wonderful time!”

"Treasure Tours" Ruth Orkin (1951)

"Jinx and Justin Flirting at the Cafe" Ruth Orkin (1951)

"At the American Express Office" Ruth Orkin (1951)

The other images in the series are just as delightful. Jinx goes for a ride, flirts, takes in the sights, shops, gets her mail, all the time looking strikingly beautiful. They capture the glamour of Italy in the 1950s while stirring up memories for other women travellers. For me, the American Express photo is especially meaningful. When I was travelling around Europe decades after Jinx, the American Express office still served as a home away from home for Americans (I can still recall that the Paris office is on the rue Scribe because I went there so often); it was a place where you could get some money, find out about tickets to your next destination, and pick up letters from friends and family back home in those pre-email days. These images also remind us that regardless of the obstacles we may have encountered while traveling alone through Europe or the moments of loneliness we experienced, it was all one hell of a great adventure.

To see all of the images in the series, visit the Ruth Orkin Photo Archive here.

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