Ormond Gigli, longtime photographer for TIME, LIFE, Paris Match and others, snapped everything from farmers to movie stars in his decades long career. But his most famous image, “Girls in the Windows” — taken on New York’s East 58th Street in 1960 – was made on a whim.
Looking out of his studio window one day at the dilapidated building on the other side of the street, Gigli imagined the scene that would become his most celebrated photograph. ‘I had the vision,’ he later explained, ‘of 43 women in formal dress adorning the windows of the skeletal façade.’ The brownstone opposite Gigli’s was in the middle of demolition and only the structural frame of the building remained to be taken down. Gigli was granted permission to use the building for the shoot on the agreement that the demolition supervisor’s wife could feature in the photograph. The shoot was arranged to take place during the demolition workers’ lunchtime and the models each took up position in the empty windows, some bravely leaning out over the perilous drop onto the sidewalk below whilst Gigli photographed from the opposite fire escape.
“We had to work quickly to secure City permissions, arrange for models which included celebrities, the demolition supervisior’s wife (third floor, third from left), my own wife (second floor, far right), and also secure the Rolls Royce to be parked on the sidewalk. Careful planning was a necessity as the photography had to be accomplished during the workers’ lunch time!” said Gigli.
“The day before the buildings were razed, the 43 women appeared in their finest attire, went into the buildings, climbed the old stairs, and took their places in the windows. I was set up on my fire escape across the streeet, directing the scene, with bullhorn in hand. Of course I was concerned for the Models’ safety, as some were daring enough to pose out on the crumbling sills.”
The striking contrast of the crumbling nineteenth-century building and the vibrant modern dresses epitomizes a moment in New York’s history in which the post-war period was coloured by a new fervor to eliminate urban decay from the city. A few days after Gigli took the photograph, the building was flattened, Asked about Girls in Windows in a recent interview, Gigli said: ‘I have a big print of it up on my wall. I still smile whenever I look at it, even after all these years.’