A striking young woman, draped in a wide shawl, majestically walks up a street corner in Florence. Fifteen Italian men are looking at her, captivated (some manifesting their interest in a more subtle manner than others). This is American Girl in Italy by Ruth Orkin, and it is one of the most famous street photographs of the 20th century.

Orkin.AmericanGirl_kpf © Ruth Orkin, used with special permission of the Ruth Orkin Photo Archive

It has lovingly adorned countless dorm walls, fuelled never-ending discussions about whether it was partially staged or not, and been interpreted by some sociologists as a symbol of women’s harassment several decades after it was taken (an unexpected turn of events for both the author and the subject of the picture). What has no been written about much, though, is the travel story behind the iconic image: a tale of two young women well ahead of their time, determined to live and explore the world on their own terms.

The year was 1951; the decor, Florence, Italy. At that time, Europe was still visibly scarred by the war that ended a mere six years earlier: unemployment was high, resources were scarce, and women were busy trying to make the most of what was available — not exactly a high time for tourism. And yet, in a $1-per-night hotel alongside the Arno river, two daring young women who had both taken to touring the continent by themselves happened to meet: freelance photographer Ruth Orkin, 29, and fresh Art School graduate Ninalee Craig, 23, who then went by the intriguing moniker of Jinx Allen.

Orkin.Jinx_03cafe American Girl Series. © Ruth Orkin, used with special permission of the Ruth Orkin Photo Archive

The pair of Americans bonded over how wonderful they both thought the experience of travelling solo as a woman was, in spite of the widespread belief at the time that it would be difficult (or simply impossible). Ruth had been toying with the idea of a photo series depicting her European experience for a while, and had just happened to encounter the perfect model.

The next morning, they went on a madly fun two-hour photo adventure, with Ninalee gawking at classic statues, making faces while trying to decipher a map, chatting with strangers at cafes — and Ruth capturing it all on film. When statuesque, quite extraordinarily-tall Ninalee walked through Piazza della Repubblica, she did not fail to catch the attention of the group of men who were hanging around there to kill time — and click! Ruth snapped what would over time become her best known image.

Untitled-1 American Girl Series. © Ruth Orkin, used with special permission of the Ruth Orkin Photo Archive

As unusual as it may sound for a single young woman to travel alone in the 1950s, Ruth was no stranger to adventure. At the age of twelve, she escaped her parents’ surveillance and biked 15 miles to Inglewood to see daredevil pilot Amelia Earhart perform once more, after being hypnotised by her aerial stunts the previous day. As a teenager, she devoured one travel book after the other — with a preference for the prose of reckless adventurer Richard Halliburton —, and landed a job at a travel bureau. That’s where she first heard of American Youth Hostels, a developing network of cheap accommodation catering to young wanderers — which she was to make extensive use of.

In 1939, after a series of small trips, Ruth decided to bike from Los Angeles — where she lived — to the other side of the country, in order to see the New York World’s Fair. When the time came to depart, she had only gathered about half the money she needed for her budget, but sure was not going to let that detail stop her: “The rest I decided I would have to pick up along the way, or do without”, she recalled years later in her book A Photo Jounal (The Viking Press, 1981).

Her trip attracted quite a bit of publicity: journalists were taken with the story of this seventeen-year-old girl biking 2,000 miles (and hitchhiking the rest) by herself, staying in hostels — or sleeping on people’s porches when there was none nearby! —, and snapping pictures of an impressive maturity for her young age along the way. And yet, in A Photo Journal, Ruth expressed how surprised she was that the papers would call her “intrepid”: “I didn’t feel intrepid; I felt fine. But I would have felt terrible if I had had to spend those four months at home without seeing the fair!”

Orkin.BikeTrip2 17-year-old Ruth Orkin and her bike make the headlines

Mary Engel, Ruth’s daughter and the Director of the Ruth Orkin Photo Archive, admits her naturally adventurous mum was “somewhat of a pioneer”. Twelve years after her monumental bike journey, Ruth had become a successful freelance photojournalist, and was sent to Israel by LIFE magazine to do a story about the Israeli Philharmonic. Out of her own initiative, she then stayed in the country and lived on a kibbutz for several months — an experience which deeply impacted her. From there, she went on to Europe, where she spent five months rambling through Rome, Florence — where she shot American Girl in Italy —, Venice, Lucerne, Paris and London.

In all of these places, she snapped frame after frame of candid street photography, tremendously inspired by the whirlwind of new sights, new architectures, new music… and most of all by the people she met. “She was always very productive”, her daughter says. “Wherever she was, she was always shooting.”

Originally, Ruth titled the American Girl series ‘Don’t Be Afraid to Travel Alone’. It was first published in a 1952 issue of Cosmopolitan magazine, along with an article listing tips for women travelling by themselves. Ruth’s intention was obviously to inspire: to show women that it was okay to travel without their family, or without a man. More than okay, actually: it was an incredibly fun and highly enjoyable experience!

Orkin.BikeTrip3 An extract from the scrapbook Ruth put together after her 1939 bike trip.
© Ruth Orkin, used with special permission of the Ruth Orkin Photo Archive

This inspiration, Ruth later transmitted it to her daughter. During her Junior year, Mary went on a student exchange to London for six months. She took advantage of this time in Europe to explore France, Switzerland, Austria… and of course, Italy. She remembers fondly that Ruth “wanted me to go and spend time there, which I did over that summer after my semester. And when I came back [to the U.S.] in the fall, we didn’t have enough money for me to go back to college… But she had thought it was more important for me to stay in Italy, because travelling was an incredibly valuable and rich cultural experience — one you just cannot get in an academic setting.”

(Upon her return, Mary worked for the money needed to complete her degree, and just ended up graduating a year late.) Visiting Europe — and seeing the legendary corner where Ruth took her most famous image, in Florence — made her feel tremendously close to her mother, but was also an unforgettable and defining experience that became entirely her own: “It is something I carry with me wherever I go. When you travel at this age, it’s just never the same…”

It is funny to see that Ruth’s legendary picture, inspired by her travels, sparked in turn several journeys for her family. Mary went to Toronto for the 60th anniversary of American Girl, to Chicago for a show… As for her son and husband, they got to attend the Venice Film Festival because of Little Fugitive, the film shot by Ruth and her husband Morris Engel in 1953. “We’re just not a family that goes to the Caribbean and sits around the beach”, Mary notes with an amused tone in her voice. “We go to different cities, live different experiences… I guess that just carried on from my mother!”

Orkin.Treasuretours_11map American Girl Series. © Ruth Orkin, used with special permission of the Ruth Orkin Photo Archive

As for the original ‘American Girl’, Ninalee Craig, she is now 86 and has kept living a travel-fuelled life: she married an Italian Count, living several years in the country that she had so much fun in; she later moved to Canada with her second husband. She and Ruth stayed in touch during all those years, and Ninalee is still very close to her family although Ruth passed away from cancer in 1985, after a rich career as a photojournalist.

Although Ruth’s daughter thinks she “didn’t see herself as a role model”, her story is a compelling reminder that solo travel is not something young women should let themselves be intimidated by — neither in the 1950s, nor in 2014. Or do you want to be the boring kid who stays at home and doesn’t see the fair?


See the entire American Girl photo series here.

mariecolinettravelettes Marie Colinet was part of the Travelettes team from 2013 to 2015. Originally from Toulouse, France, two years lived in Australia left her speaking English with an awkward Fraussie accent. In September 2015, Marie is starting the epic 6-month-or-who-knows-how-long road-trip along the Panamerican Highway that she’s been dreaming of since her teenage years — all the way from the U.S. to the very tip of South-America. You can follow her on Instagram @mariecolinet!