In the bustling heart of New York City, amidst the eclectic vibrancy of 1960, the talented photojournalist Ormond Gigli embarked on a creative endeavor that would become an enduring symbol of artistic vision. This is the story behind his iconic photograph, “Girls in the Windows.”
In the early 1960s, Gigli found himself operating out of a studio located on East 58th Street, right across from a row of classic New York City brownstones. These charming buildings were slated for demolition, prompting Gigli to undertake a mission to immortalize the beauty of the neighborhood he held dear.
Faced with budget constraints and no means to engage professional models, Gigli displayed ingenuity and determination. He reached out to the foreman overseeing the demolition and successfully secured a precious two-hour window to capture his vision. This small time frame meant he had to work with astonishing efficiency.
Undeterred by the challenge, Gigli sought assistance from a modeling agency he had previously collaborated with, requesting models to volunteer for his unconventional photo project. These models were entrusted to wear attire of their choice and asked to assemble during the lunch hour.
The building itself, devoid of electricity and gas due to its impending demolition, presented another challenge. Gigli approached the city authorities, humbly seeking permission to park a Rolls Royce on the sidewalk, a pivotal element in his envisioned composition.
With a keen eye for detail and an artistic sensibility, Gigli meticulously arranged the 43 women, including his wife, in the windows of the brownstones. Each window became a canvas, and each woman a unique stroke of color, personality, and attire. Some boldly stood on the window sills, while others were framed by the windows, creating a dynamic composition that told a myriad of stories.
Perched on the fire escape of his studio, Gigli captured the scene as it unfolded across five floors. The final photograph was a breathtaking tableau, where living, breathing women became vibrantly colored figurines in a life-sized dollhouse. The composition was rich in its ability to be appreciated both as a whole, a rhythmic composition of color and form, and as a tapestry of individual stories waiting to be explored.
The photograph was not only a testament to Gigli’s creative genius but also a love letter to a neighborhood he feared would soon disappear. As a poignant coda, no two figures looked alike, and the posture and attire of each woman hinted at the unique personality that existed beyond the confines of the photograph.
Gigli’s own recollection of the event, as shared with Time magazine, offered insight into the challenges he faced and the fulfillment he derived from his audacious vision. He remembered a whirlwind of preparations, with the models ascending the old stairs and taking their positions the day before the buildings were razed. Gigli was perched across the street, directing the scene with a bullhorn, ensuring the models’ safety even as some posed daringly on crumbling sills.
The result was a photograph that captured the essence of a bygone era. The image, titled “Girls in the Windows,” has not only withstood the test of time but has also become an international award winner, leaving an indelible mark on Gigli’s remarkable career. For most professional photographers, there exists a signature picture that defines them, and for Ormond Gigli, this photograph is unequivocally his.
Born in New York City in 1925, Ormond Gigli’s journey in photography began with a gift from his father, his first camera, during his teenage years. After graduating from the School of Modern Photography in 1942, he served as a photographer in the Navy during World War II. His life took an adventurous turn with a stint in Paris, living the bohemian life.
Gigli’s career soared in 1952 when a LIFE magazine editor commissioned him for a series of celebrity portraits and coverage of the Paris fashion shows. His ascent was marked by one of his pictures gracing the center spread of the magazine. This launchpad set him on a path as a fashion photographer that spanned over four decades.
Throughout his illustrious career, Gigli’s lens captured luminaries such as Sophia Loren, Anita Ekberg, John F. Kennedy, Gina Lollabrigida, Diana Vreeland, Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland, Louis Armstrong, Laurence Olivier, Alan Bates, Richard Burton, and many others. His work became a lasting testament to the artistic richness and cultural diversity of his era, echoing the vivid spirit of a bygone New York City.