Standing on a second-story fire escape, a photographer named Ormond Gigli is shouting instructions through a bullhorn. Forty models are posing in the window frames of brownstones across East 58th Street on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, a menagerie of colorful dresses and evening gowns. Two more women stand on the sidewalk, next to a silver Rolls-Royce.
It is the summer of 1960 and Gigli is in a rush. Demolition on the brownstones has already begun — that’s why there’s no glass in those windows — and the day after the shoot, the buildings will be razed. But the demolition supervisor has agreed to let Gigli commandeer the place for two hours during an extended lunch break, under one condition: The supervisor wants his wife in the picture. (She’s on the third floor, third from the left.)
Nobody has hired Gigli, a 35-year-old freelance commercial photographer, to create “Girls in the Windows.” He’s working without an assignment because he wants to memorialize those buildings, which stand directly across the street from his home studio. What he doesn’t know is that the image will become one of the most collected photographs in the history of the medium.