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.
Over the last 30 years, roughly 600 signed and numbered copies have been sold, at prices that typically range between $15,000 and $30,000. The image is offered at galleries around the world — in New York, Los Angeles, Palm Beach, Cleveland, Atlanta, Boston, Santa Fe, London, Paris and, until the invasion of Ukraine, Moscow. Buyers who want to cut out the middleman can buy directly from the artist’s estate.
“Girls in the Windows” is also a darling of the auction market. More than 160 have been offered over the years at Phillips, Christie’s, Sotheby’s and other houses, according to Artnet. In 2017 alone, an amazing 13 copies were put on the block and instead of depressing the prices, one of them set a record for the image, at $56,906. Seven have been sold at auctions this year, and on Tuesday another one sold at Phillips in London for 30,480 British pounds, roughly $38,000 and well over the high estimate.
The standard art market rules of supply and demand simply don’t apply to “Girls in the Windows.” Add up the prices of all the copies already sold and you end up with a number in the range of $12 million.
“We’ve had discussions about this internally,” said Caroline Deck, senior specialist of photographs at Phillips in New York City. “It must be the highest-grossing photograph of all time.”
It’s hard to know for sure if that’s true. A few photographs have turned up at auction more times than “Girls,” including “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico,” a 1941 photograph by Ansel Adams, and Henri Cartier-Bresson’s “Rue Mouffetard,” a 1954 black-and-white image of a young boy proudly toting two bottles of wine down a street. And a number of individual photographs have fetched spectacular sums, including work by Man Ray (“Le Violon d’Ingres,” which sold for $12.4 million) and Edward Steichen (“The Flatiron,” $11.8 million).
But the notion that “Girls” might well belong in a discussion about the most valuable photographs in history raises a question: How did an otherwise obscure commercial photographer, who spent much of his career photographing celebrities and politicians for magazines like Parade and Life, crash a party filled with some of the most famous artists in the world?
The answer starts with the image, of course, which is a brassy, joyful combination of glamour and urban grit with a dash of “Mad Men”-era nostalgia. The building embodies a glorious slab of vanishing New York City, and those women look like they’re ready to break into song.
“If you come to the gallery, we’ve got a lot of stuff hanging and that’s the one they always stop in front of,” said Etheleen Staley, co-founder of Staley-Wise, a gallery in SoHo, the first to sell a copy of “Girls.” “They love it and they’ll pay a lot of money for it and ignore that there are a million out there.”
A “million” overstates the matter, but it hints at the other secret of the success of “Girls” — a very robust supply. Starting around 2010, and before his death in 2019, Gigli produced, printed and signed hundreds of copies of the photograph, in a variety of sizes and on a variety of photographic papers. He did so at the behest of his son, Ogden, 63, a photographer who now runs his father’s estate and who masterminded the unique sales strategy that turned the image into a phenomenon.
“It was all me, saying to my father, ‘Whatever we do, whatever editions we make, I can sell them, don’t worry,’” said the younger Gigli, from his studio in Pittsfield, Mass., home to what could be called Girls in the Windows Inc. “I saw that we needed to have inventory for the day my father passed and it was my belief that the appeal of this image would carry on forever.”
Typically, fine art photographers sell five or six copies of an image in one or two sizes. Scarcity is intended to drive interest and sustain prices. “Girls” has been printed in 12 different sizes and in each size the Giglis created dozens of photographs. There are 75 copies of the 50-inch square edition, for instance, and 44 copies of the 27-inch square edition.
“The reason it’s successful is that there is product for people to own,” Ogden Gigli explained. “And they’re not worried that there are hundreds out there. They’re thinking that $10,000, $20,000, $30,000 isn’t a lot for one of the world’s best images.”
Ormond Gigli grew up in New York City and took up photography in his teens. He joined the U.S. Navy during World War II, serving as a photographer, and later bought the brownstone — still standing at 327 East 58th Street, now home to the permanent mission of the Kingdom of Cambodia to the United Nations — where he set up his home studio. He took assignments from The Saturday Evening Post, Time and other magazines. John F. Kennedy stopped by the studio to have his portrait taken by Gigli in 1961. Boris Karloff arrived with a man dressed as Frankenstein. Gigli coaxed a mule onto the premises for a hillbilly-themed shot of the actress Gina Lollobrigida.
At some point in 1960, Gigli realized that a clutch of brownstones across the street were about to disappear. Manhattan was just entering its maximum-occupancy phase, obliterating tenements and constructing high-rise apartment buildings. The idea for “Girls” came to him close to the day of destruction.
“There was very little planning beforehand,” said Sue Ellen Gigli, his wife, 95, who spoke on the phone from her son’s studio. “But we knew those buildings were coming down so he thought about what he could do to remember them as they were.”
Sue Ellen Gigli wasn’t just an onlooker during the “Girls” shoot. She is standing in a window, second row, far right. She remembers a bit of a frenzy and a focus on costs. The 40 models came from an upstart agency, and none of them seemed to mind the pay — $1 per woman for the whole gig. Nor did they flinch when asked to bring their own outfits, or do their own hair and make up.
The Rolls was borrowed from a dealership nearby. A small disaster was averted when a Con Edison crew agreed to pour concrete on a patch of sidewalk it had just dug up. The women stepped around debris to climb the tenement stairs and, from across the street, Ormond Gigli arranged them just so.
“I moved them around to spread out the colors,” he told The Guardian in 2013, “and told them to pose as if they were giving someone a kiss.”
The image first ran in Ladies’ Home Journal, then a handful of other publications. It didn’t become commercially available until 1994. That year, Sue Ellen Gigli called Sotheby’s and asked if it would sell “Girls in the Windows.” An in-house expert advised her to find a gallery that would represent her husband. The Giglis soon hopped on a subway to SoHo, a copy of “Girls” in hand.
“We took to it instantly,” recalled Staley, the gallerist. “In the beginning it was just us. Now Ogden sells to whomever he wants.”
Ogden Gigli keeps close tabs on his many sellers. If he learns that a gallery is peddling “Girls” at a discount, that gallery is cut off. And he provides copies to auction houses at a pace intended to maintain a base-line price. Which doesn’t always work. Over the years, about 30 copies have failed to sell at their low estimates at auctions, Artnet reports. (The auction house will usually find a buyer privately, hold the image for a future auction or return it to Gigli.)
The vast majority, though, are gaveled out the door. Buyers rhapsodize about the image and are undaunted by the sheer quantity of “Girls” in the world.
“I didn’t buy it to make money,” said Jim Buslik, 73, a principal in the commercial real estate business in New York, who bought his copy in 2008. “It hit me the first time I saw it and every day after that.”
Unsurprisingly, auction houses regularly contact Gigli and ask for a “Girls.” That’s what Phillips did a few weeks ago, requesting the copy that sold on Tuesday.
“Departments do have to hit their numbers,” said Joshua Holdeman, head of the Hammond Group, an art advisory firm, who has worked at all three of the major auction houses. “And if they know it’s an easy sale and it’s going to sell at a certain price, it’s like, totally easy money.”
Gigli says he has about 100 “Girls” left, including black-and-white copies that he describes as so stunning he’s a little reluctant to part with them. But he will, and once everything is sold, one of photography’s most improbable runs will come to end.
Unless it doesn’t. Some heirs of deceased artists produce “estate prints,” which look identical and simply lack the artist’s signature. (They get an estate stamp instead.) Estate prints of “Girls” would surely fetch lower prices, but how much lower is unclear.
“That’s a market I need to research,” Gigli said. “You never know.”