"Girls in the Windows": The Story Behind Ormond Gigli's Iconic Photograph

By Maria Bregman

“Girls in the Windows,” a photograph taken by American photojournalist Ormond Gigli in 1960, remains one of the most collected and highest-grossing images in the history of photography. This iconic image captures a fleeting moment in New York City’s architectural history, immortalising a bygone era with a striking blend of artistic vision and meticulous execution. In this article, we delve into the story behind the photograph, the challenges faced during its creation, and its enduring legacy in the world of art and photography.

The Vision: Capturing a Disappearing New York

In the second half of the 1940s, Ormond Gigli purchased an apartment at 327 East 58th Street in New York City. During this period, the city was undergoing significant changes, with old apartment buildings being demolished to make way for modern high-rises. Gigli, driven by a desire to preserve the vanishing architectural landscape of Manhattan, envisioned a photograph that would encapsulate this transformative moment. His imagination conjured up an image of elegant women framed in the windows of one of these soon-to-be-demolished buildings.

The Challenge: Bringing the Vision to Life

Realising this vision was no small feat. Gigli had to act swiftly to obtain the necessary permissions, recruit models, and coordinate the logistics of the shoot. The urgency of the project added to its complexity, as the building slated for demolition provided a narrow window of opportunity for capturing the desired shot.

Securing Permissions and Gathering Models

Gigli faced several hurdles in securing the location and permissions for the shoot. He needed to obtain approval from the demolition authorities, who agreed on the condition that the wife of the demolition supervisor participate in the photograph. This stipulation led to her inclusion in the image, positioned third from the left on the third floor.

To populate the windows, Gigli recruited 40 models through an agency, offering them a dollar each for their participation. The models were given the freedom to choose their outfits, hairstyles, and makeup, contributing to the photograph’s diverse and vibrant aesthetic. Gigli’s wife also participated, appearing in the second row, far right.

The Shoot: A Moment in Time

The photoshoot was meticulously planned to take place during the workers’ lunch hour, ensuring minimal disruption. On the day of the shoot, Gigli directed the models from across the street, using a megaphone while perched on the fire escape of a neighbouring building. The building’s windows, devoid of glass, provided a stark and haunting backdrop for the elegantly dressed women.

Despite the challenges, the shoot proceeded smoothly, and Gigli successfully captured the image he had envisioned. The house in which the models posed was demolished the following day, adding a poignant finality to the photograph’s creation.

The Photograph’s Journey: From Obscurity to Acclaim

Although taken in 1960, “Girls in the Windows” and its authorised copies were not made available for sale until 1994. Since then, the photograph has achieved significant acclaim, with over 160 prints sold at auction, amassing a total value of approximately $12 million. This commercial success is a testament to the photograph’s enduring appeal and its status as a cultural and artistic icon.

Artistic Significance and Legacy

“Girls in the Windows” is celebrated not only for its aesthetic appeal but also for its historical significance. The photograph captures a moment of transition in New York City’s architectural history, preserving the memory of a disappearing urban landscape. The juxtaposition of the models’ timeless elegance against the stark, empty windows of the soon-to-be-demolished building creates a powerful and evocative image that resonates with viewers.

Gigli’s use of vibrant colours, the natural light streaming through the empty windows, and the careful composition of the models all contribute to the photograph’s visual impact. The image is a masterclass in balancing complexity and simplicity, offering viewers a glimpse into a bygone era while celebrating the beauty of the present moment.

The Models: Stories Within the Frame

Each model in “Girls in the Windows” adds a unique element to the photograph, contributing to its rich tapestry of stories. The diverse outfits, hairstyles, and poses of the women reflect the fashion and cultural norms of the time, providing a snapshot of 1960s style and sensibilities. The inclusion of Gigli’s wife and the demolition supervisor’s wife adds personal and contextual layers to the image, connecting it to the specific circumstances of its creation.

The Cultural Impact: Inspiring Generations

“Girls in the Windows” has inspired countless artists, photographers, and enthusiasts over the years. Its blend of historical documentation and artistic expression serves as a reminder of photography’s power to capture and preserve moments in time. The photograph’s success at auction and its continued relevance in contemporary art circles underscore its lasting impact and influence.

A Timeless Masterpiece

Ormond Gigli’s “Girls in the Windows” stands as a testament to the photographer’s vision, creativity, and determination. The image’s journey from conception to execution, and its subsequent acclaim, highlight the intersection of art and history, capturing a moment of transformation in New York City. As a timeless masterpiece, “Girls in the Windows” continues to captivate audiences, reminding us of the enduring power of photography to tell stories and evoke emotions.

In celebrating this iconic photograph, we recognise the importance of preserving and honouring our cultural and architectural heritage. “Girls in the Windows” not only immortalises a specific moment in time but also serves as an enduring symbol of beauty, resilience, and the human spirit.