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Opinion Op Ed 06 Jun 2018 One Off: How ‘ ...
The writer is a poet, novelist and journalist based in New Delhi, and his latest collection of poems is Available Light.

One Off: How ‘reality’ can turn out to be a sham

Published Jun 6, 2018, 1:27 am IST
Updated Jun 6, 2018, 1:27 am IST
The Ruth Orkin picture became part of the wall and hall decorations of the feminist movement from the 1960s.
An American Girl in Italy, Florence by Ruth Orkin.
 An American Girl in Italy, Florence by Ruth Orkin.

This is a story of how most things are with us. Not reality as reality. But reality as what we read into it. And how it spawns other realities which were not there. A recent obit in The Economist was on Ms Ninalee Craig. She was, among other things, the star of a black and white photograph, which might well be a movie given the scripts and reviews that came to be written on it.  The picture was taken by Ms Ruth Orkin, a feminist, photographer, and traveller, who believed in “making people look at what I want them to look at”. Read that line again. It will come in handy to understand the picture  in question. Ms Craig died a few weeks ago. Ms Orkin died in 1985. The picture is titled, “An American Girl in Italy, Florence”.

The photograph was taken in 1951, when Ms Orkin ran into Ms Craig in Italy. It shows 15 Italian men on a footpath in varying degrees of lecherous admiration ogling a statuesque and poised Ms Craig walking right through the troop of apparently shaken and stirred dicks of varying sizes and ages. She might as well be in a cage stared at by excited male monkeys.  The picture tells a story. Of men. Of women. Of travel. Of scooters, too. Of clothes, and culture. Even of Divine Comedy.  Ms Craig would later compare herself as a modern-day Beatrice, showing the onlookers a way out of their misery, a path perhaps to romantic —  not untouched with sex, of course — salvation from the traumas of World War II that Italy was still  recovering from. 


It is a safe bet that being the naturally insular American — as most Americans are, and a fundamental reason for their abiding and disastrous foreign affairs, resulting in many wars and setbacks — Ms Craig would have been congenitally incapable seeing through another reality. A trans-gender problem. A national problem, in fact. White men can’t jump. Yankees can’t see. Yes, the picture tells a story. In fact it came to tell a story. What Ms Orkin was attempting, as put down in her diary and as quoted by Mr David Schonauer in his article on the subject in the Smithsonian Magazine, in 2011, was this: “Shot Jinx (Ninalee’s nickname) in morn in color — at Arno & Piazza Signoria, then got idea for pic story. Satire on Am. girl alone in Europe.”


A lark. A satire. And it was staged: “Allen (Ms Craig is described as tall and luminous elsewhere by Ms Orkin in rather sexist terms) wore a long skirt — the so-called New Look introduced by Christian Dior in 1947 was in full swing — with an orange Mexican rebozo over her shoulder, and she carried a horse’s feed bag as a purse. As she walked into the piazza, the men there took animated notice.”
The men were framed. They were supposed to ogle. They ogled. They were eyeing a great-looking woman, whose existential relevance at the moment — engineered by her friend and photographer — was to draw attention. At best, the operation could be interpreted in retrospect as a typical Indian sting operation: dangle a piece of meat before a dog till it overcomes its suspicions and comes smelling at it; hey, the dog eats meat.


The title of the article in the Smithsonian Magazine is: An Image of Innocence Abroad. Which to my mind is again is representative of the American archetypal problem of perception.  The image was connived. The innocence was staged. Abroad by implication was a place of corruption.  Decades after the picture was taken, after facts were known, the photograph was still being associated with innocence. In the post-war Italy, the economic miracle, thanks to the Marshall Plan and the natural buoyancy of the Italians, was yet to kick in. In the picture, with the possible exception of a young man, looking somewhat like Roberto de Nero, one hand symbolically placed close to his groin, and his friend who has an umbrella, the others look rather dissolute and unemployed. 


It is a fair bet that in the hundreds of analyses and deconstructive pieces doing the rounds on this photograph, no one has made any concerted effort at finding out who these men were.  I googled, but could not find any research on this aspect. Indeed, it’s a safe bet that at least eight out of the 15 patriarchs in question have lost someone in the family in the war.  The Ruth Orkin picture became part of the wall and hall decorations of the feminist movement from the 1960s. Both the heroine of the picture and its creator were celebrated.  Both tried telling the truth in the beginning. That it was staged. But the need of history was not to accept that position because the feminist movement required a victim narrative; or, a survivor’s story, a representative image. The media found no drama in the truth either. 


The piazza photos ran in Cosmopolitan magazine in 1952 in an essay, When You Travel Alone..., offering tips on “money, men and morals to see you through a gay trip and a safe one”. And, “The article encourages readers to buy ship and train tickets ahead of time. It reminds them to bring their birth certificate and check in with the state department.’’ How to get readers to these homilies? How to get advertisers to the magazine? The Divine Comedy with the horse feed bag attached to it must have presented itself as an option. 


I am not making a case for the men staring at a woman, no matter it occurred in another time, in another culture, in another country. Men still do it. And worse. What I am saying is that the Ruth Orkin picture at the centre of the feminist discourse is a sham. A true sham. But a sham.  The reality is far more complex than a two-dimensional image. To find the true story of the portrayed patriarchy and the now genuinely cliched “pathological male gaze” that defines the photo, we need to find where the men in the picture came from, and where they will be going once Ms Craig strides past the corner, and becomes history.  Who are these men? These pathetic cardboard figures with only one thing in their mind, and two things close to the pockets? What happened to them? Where are the footnotes?