I don’t think of myself as a good photographer. Yes, digital cameras made photography a little easier but when a real Kodak moment appears I often find myself staring at the scene it in stead of acting. Ruth Orkin on the other hand was a great photographer. I love her recognizable ‘Comic Book Readers’ but my most favorite is ‘American Girl In Italy’, shown above.
I remember I first saw American Girl when I was 13 or 14 years old and the cinematic atmosphere of the photo made quite an impression on me. Orkin captured the flirting guys and the uncomfortable looking girl at just the right moment. I never grew tired of looking at this photo.
Every time I see American Girl I’d like to think of how the scene evolved. It all started further down the street, right where those older men are standing. They watched the girl walk by and approved quietly. The commotion started with those two guys on the scooter, who made a remark which made those two other guys on the corner respond too. The girl, the unwanted centre of attention, is protectively pulling her scarf a little tighter when she passes those two men at the corner closely; one guy provocative, the other motionless, with a silent hey-let’s-check-this-chick-out! stare. The man at the table on the corner also heard the fuzz and is leaning back to see her pass. She has the complete street staring at every move she makes. You can almost hear her count down the steps to the end of the street. What made her stand out like this I wonder... was she dressed in a different way with, for example, very hip shoes? Was she therefore recognized as a foreigner? Or was it a simple ‘lovely looking girl entering a domain of bold men’ situation?
This photo is a popular wall decoration in cafe's and restaurants and I’m aware that it’s almost a cliche image. But that won’t keep me from loving it. The scene is so tangible that you can easily imagine the remarks of the men, the buzz, the sounds of the street and the smell of coffee, cigarettes and that scooter at the sidewalk. Orkin must have acted in a split second, because the girl is only a few steps away from her ‘escape’. Therefore Ruth Orkin had what I completely lack; the gift of acting on ‘le moment décisif’.
(Photo: ©Ruth Orkin, American Girl In Italy, 1952. See more of Orkin’s work at Orkin Photo)