Ormond Gigli was among the most celebrated photographers of his era, capturing iconic images of movie stars and politicians for Time and Life magazine for 30 years.
Today, he is remembered largely for one shot he took on a lark in 1960.
The photograph is entitled “Girls in the Windows” and even today it has a spectacular dreamlike quality, at once modern and timeless.
Gigli’s life story is a great example of the quote attributed to Seneca: “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”
He started taking pictures as a teenager and served in World War II. Afterward he lived as a self described “penniless” bohemian in Paris. He got a break in 1952 when he replaced famed war correspondent Robert Capa on an assignment to shoot celebrities.
He went on to photograph Sophia Loren, Anita Ekberg, John F. Kennedy, Gina Lollobrigida, Diana Vreeland, Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland and Louis Armstrong among others.
Gigli was an accomplished photographer in 1960, but still toward the beginning of a 75-year career when he took the picture that would define him.
Gigli lived at 327 East 58th Street in a townhouse he had renovated to include a double-height studio with a 16-foot high glass wall in the back.
It was there one day that he looked across the street at a row of dilapidated brownstones and wondered, as he later recounted to Time magazine: “What can I do with it?”
We are often told that doing our best work requires extensive planning. And that is often true.
But the opposite is also true. The most creative, life-defining ideas can emerge suddenly.
Gigli didn’t wake up that day expecting to take the photo that would define his legacy. But 24 hours later that is what happened.
The inspiration was to pose fashionable women in each window.
When he heard the building was being demolished the next day, Gigli moved quickly.
Gigli called models and friends to come wearing something fabulous. The contractor gave him permission to shoot provided the man’s wife was included.
As Gigli described it in his autobiography published in 2013: “There were models, socialites, my wife (second floor, far right), the supervisor’s wife (third floor, third from left), all wearing their best dresses. I moved them around to spread out the colors and told them to pose as if they were giving someone a kiss.”
Gigli directed the models using a bullhorn while perched on the fire escape across the street. He warned them about leaning out too far because the window sills were unstable.
He was lucky. It didn’t rain. The sun shone bright. The police didn’t come break it up.
But he was also prepared and seized an opportunity.
Gigli’s best work wasn’t a commission, but a personal passion. He was prepared and when the moment arrived he seized the opportunity.
The story reminds us that planning may be necessary, but acting is everything.