1. Headline
  1. Headline
Image: Ninalee Craig with "American Girl in Italy" photo
Keith Beaty  /  Toronto Star
Ninalee Craig, 83, is the woman in Ruth Orkin's 1951 photograph "American Girl in Italy." This photo taken on Aug. 12 shows Craig standing next to Orkin's iconic image and wearing the same orange shawl she wore in the photo nearly 60 years ago.
By Laura T. Coffey
TODAY contributor
updated 8/18/2011 10:35:18 AM ET 2011-08-18T14:35:18

You know the photo. You’ve seen it a hundred times. A beautiful, statuesque young woman is walking down a street in Florence, Italy. She’s clutching her shawl, and she seems to be moving swiftly. More than a dozen men are staring at her longingly. One of them is grabbing his crotch.

The iconic 1951 image “American Girl in Italy” turns 60 on Monday. As its anniversary approaches, the stunning woman in the photo — Ninalee Craig, now 83 — is speaking up about it. She wants to explain what the photo represents, and what it doesn’t.

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

Back in 1951, Craig was a carefree 23-year-old who had chucked her job in New York and secured third-class accommodations on a ship bound for Europe. She spent more than six months making her way through France, Spain and Italy all by herself — something very few women did in the years following World War II.

She traveled as inexpensively as she could, so she was thrilled when she found a hotel right on the Arno River in Florence where she could stay for $1 a day. There, she met another adventurous solo female traveler: Ruth Orkin, a 29-year-old photographer who came to Italy after completing an assignment in Israel.

Image: "American Girl in Italy," Florence, 1951
© 1952, 1980 Ruth Orkin / Courtesy of Stephen Bulger Gallery
Ruth Orkin's "American Girl in Italy" photo has become so famous over the years that a Canadian newspaper recently described it as "the image that has endured from dorm-room walls to French bistro loos."

“She was living from day to day, nickel-and-diming it,” Craig recalled. “We talked about traveling alone and asked each other, ‘Are you having a hard time? Are you ever bothered?’ We both found that we were having a wonderful time, and only some things were a little difficult.”

In the course of that conversation, an idea was hatched: They would head out together the next morning, wander around Florence and shoot pictures of what it was really like to travel alone as a young single woman.

From about 10 a.m. to noon the following day, Orkin shot photos of Craig — who then called herself “Jinx Allen,” a name she invented and assumed because it sounded “exciting” — admiring statues, asking for directions, haggling at markets and flirting in cafes.

“We were literally horsing around,” Craig said, reminiscing about the bright orange shawl she wore that day.

Orkin captured her famous “American Girl in Italy” photograph during those two hours of silliness and fun. Her contact sheets from that day reveal that she shot only two frames of that particular street scene.

  1. More TODAY News
    1. Dr. Phil, viewers weigh in on dad who shot laptop
    2. First lady greets surprised tourists at the White House
    3. Pedaling hope: War veterans plan 4,163-mile bike ride
    4. Sports Illustrated cover girl revives age of supermodel
    5. Lauren Scruggs takes first vacation, tweets photos

“The big debate about the picture, which everyone always wants to know, is: Was it staged? NO!” 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 and repeat [the walk].”

Orkin died in 1985. Her daughter, Mary Engel, has devoted her life to protecting her mother’s photographic archive and promoting her legacy as a documentary photographer. Engel agreed with Craig’s account of what happened on that August day in Florence, and she added one more contextual detail.

“She told the man on motorcycle to tell the other men not to look at the camera,” said Engel, director of the Orkin/Engel Film and Photo Archive. “But the composition, it just happened. And my mother got it. That’s what she was good at. ... She didn’t take loads and loads of photos. She waited for shots.”

Image: "Jinx and Justin Flirting at the Cafe," Florence, Italy, 1951
© 1952, 1980 Ruth Orkin / Courtesy of Stephen Bulger Gallery
This photo is called "Jinx and Justin Flirting at the Cafe," Florence, Italy, 1951.

Of course, a good documentary photograph welcomes viewers into a scene and invites their interpretations. That’s understandable, say Craig and Engel — but both of them stress the same point about “American Girl in Italy”: The photo is primarily a celebration of strong, independent women who aren’t afraid to live life.

Slideshow: Timeless: Ruth Orkin's photos still resonate today (on this page)

“Men who see the picture always ask me: Was I frightened? Did I need to be protected? Was I upset?” Craig said. “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!’”

Craig said she certainly did feel appreciated in Italy and elsewhere in Europe. She turned plenty of heads wherever she went because she was 6 feet tall and traveling alone. She knows the men in the photo appear to be leering and lascivious, but she insists they were harmless.

“Very few of those men had jobs,” Craig said. “Italy was recovering from the war and had really been devastated by it … I can tell you that it wasn’t the intent of any man there to harass me.”

OK, but how about the man committing that not-so-innocent-looking gesture with his hand?

Image: "Negotiating with the Shopkeeper," Florence, Italy, 1951
© 1952, 1980 Ruth Orkin / Courtesy of Stephen Bulger Gallery
During a whimsical, two-hour photo shoot, Ruth Orkin captured Ninalee Craig negotiating with shopkeepers and having other adventures as a solo female traveler.

“That young man is not whistling, by the way; he’s making a happy, yelping sound,” Craig said. “And where you see him touching the family jewels, or indicating them, with his hand — well, for a long time that was considered an image people should not look at. That part was airbrushed out for years ... But none of those men crossed the line at all.”

After she felt ready to end her European tour in 1951 — and after spending less than $1,000 on her entire trip — Craig returned home to New York. She taught school for a time, then got a job writing advertising copy, then married an Italian widower and moved to Milan. That marriage ultimately ended in divorce, so she returned to New York, worked in advertising again, met a Canadian man on a blind date and married him. She first came to Toronto in the 1970s.

Today, she’s a grandmother of 10, a great-grandmother of seven and an avid supporter of Toronto’s arts scene. She’s elated that her friend Ruth Orkin’s photographs and other works are on display at the Stephen Bulger Gallery in Toronto, in part to honor the 60-year anniversary of the moments Orkin captured on that unforgettable day.

“My life has been wonderful,” Craig said. “I’m ready for more.”

Ruth Orkin’s “American Girl in Italy” photograph and other works are on display now through Aug. 27 at the Stephen Bulger Gallery, 1026 Queen St. W., Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Ninalee Craig and Mary Engel will attend a public reception at the gallery from 2 to 5 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 20. To learn more, visit the gallery’s website.

Need a Coffey break? Friend TODAY.com writer Laura T. Coffey on Facebook, follow her on Twitter  or read more of her stories at LauraTCoffey.com.

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints

Photos: Timeless: Ruth Orkin's photos still resonate today

loading photos...
  1. Iconic image

    Throughout the 1940s, 1950s and beyond, documentary photographer Ruth Orkin became widely known for traveling great distances, capturing moods and waiting for just the right shot. One of her most famous photos -- "American Girl in Italy," Florence, 1951 -- is pictured here. Keep clicking for additional photos Orkin took of Ninalee Craig during a two-hour span on the same day. (© 1952, 1980 Ruth Orkin / Courtesy of Stephen Bulger Gallery) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. 'Asking Directions,' Florence, Italy, 1951

    In 1951, Ruth Orkin, a 29-year-old photographer, was excited to meet Ninalee Craig, 23, another rare solo female traveler in Europe in the years following World War II. They decided to spend a morning wandering around Florence and shooting pictures of what it was really like to travel alone as a young single woman. Here, Craig asks a military official for directions. (© 1952, 1980 Ruth Orkin / Courtesy of Stephen Bulger Gallery) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. 'At the American Express Office,' Florence, Italy, 1951

    Ninalee Craig happily reads mail at the American Express office. "American Express was so valuable," Craig recalled in a telephone interview. "That's where we got our mail and had any contact with U.S. ... We were certainly much more detached when we traveled. Kids today have a cell phone and they're to call twice a day even though they’re in Angola or someplace." (© 1952, 1980 Ruth Orkin / Courtesy of Stephen Bulger Gallery) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. 'Negotiating with the Shopkeeper,' Florence, Italy, 1951

    Ruth Orkin captured Ninalee Craig haggling at local markets. Craig recalled that her height -- 6 feet -- contributed to the way she stood out while traveling alone in Europe. (© 1952, 1980 Ruth Orkin / Courtesy of Stephen Bulger Gallery) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. 'Jinx Through the Beads,' Florence, Italy, 1951

    When these photos were taken, Ninalee Craig called herself “Jinx Allen,” a name she invented and assumed because it sounded “exciting." "These photos are just timeless," noted Mary Engel, Ruth Orkin's daughter. "The classic clothes that Ninalee was wearing, the Italian culture -- all timeless." (© 1952, 1980 Ruth Orkin / Courtesy of Stephen Bulger Gallery) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. 'Jinx and Justin Flirting at the Cafe,' Florence, Italy, 1951

    Ruth Orkin's two-hour photographic adventure with Ninalee Craig (known at the time as Jinx Allen) included a fair share of flirting and silliness. “We were literally horsing around,” Craig said. (© 1952, 1980 Ruth Orkin / Courtesy of Stephen Bulger Gallery) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. 'Jinx in Goggles,' Florence, Italy, 1951

    Ninalee Craig (also known as Jinx Allen) looks pensive as she prepares for her next adventure in a convertible MG. (© 1952, 1980 Ruth Orkin / Courtesy of Stephen Bulger Gallery) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. 'Couple in MG,' Florence, Italy, 1951

    Ready for takeoff: Ninalee Craig smiles and waves at photographer Ruth Orkin as she gets set to tool around Florence with a new friend. (© 1952, 1980 Ruth Orkin / Courtesy of Stephen Bulger Gallery) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. 'American Girl in Italy, Contact Sheet #2,' 1951

    Ruth Orkin's contact sheets from Aug. 22, 1951 reveal that she shot only two frames of the famous "American Girl in Italy" street scene. “The big debate about the picture, which everyone always wants to know, is: Was it staged? NO!” Ninalee Craig said. “No, no, no! You don’t have 15 men in a picture and take just two shots. The men were just there." (© 1952, 1980 Ruth Orkin / Courtesy of Stephen Bulger Gallery) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. 'Jinx and Ruth on the Balcony,' Florence, Italy 1951

    Ruth Orkin met Ninalee Craig at the hotel where they were both staying in Florence for $1 a day. (© 1952, 1980 Ruth Orkin / Courtesy of Stephen Bulger Gallery) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. 'Ruth Orkin in Italy,' 1951

    Ruth Orkin was serious about solo travel. When she was 17, she embarked alone on a bicycle trip across the United States from Los Angeles to New York City so she could see the 1939 World’s Fair. "She hitchhiked the major distances … but she biked over 2,000 miles in the major cities and she took photos of everything," said Mary Engel, Orkin's daughter. "Some of those photos from when she was 17 are fantastic." (Orkin/Engel Film and Photo Archives) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. An enduring friendship

    Ruth Orkin, left, and Ninalee Craig, right, are pictured together in the 1970s with the "American Girl in Italy" photograph behind them. They remained friends until Orkin died of cancer in 1985 at age 63. (Orkin/Engel Film and Photo Archives) Back to slideshow navigation
  1. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  2. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  3. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  4. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments

More on TODAY.com

  1. Tony Dejak / AP

    Cleveland captive says she now forgives her kidnapper

    10/20/2014 6:47:02 PM +00:00 2014-10-20T18:47:02
  1. Three big expenses you'll save on this fall

    10/20/2014 1:35:24 PM +00:00 2014-10-20T13:35:24
  1. TODAY'

    How a haunted house sent Tamron Hall to the hospital

    10/20/2014 4:09:53 PM +00:00 2014-10-20T16:09:53
  1. Another U.S. Ebola patient recovers at Emory

    An American doctor infected with Ebola in Sierra Leone last month has gone quietly home after spending six weeks at Emory University’s special biocontainment unit, the hospital said Monday.

    10/20/2014 8:43:47 PM +00:00 2014-10-20T20:43:47