At the age of 17, Ruth Orkin (1921–1985) decided to ride a bicycle from Los Angeles to New York in order to attend the 1939 World’s Fair. She made the trip in a matter of three weeks, photographing her journey along the way — a singular feat that spoke to Orkin’s ability to realize her greatest ambitions.
“Ruth had a big personality. She was very charismatic,” says her daughter Mary Engel, Director of the Ruth Orkin Photo Archive, who is honoring the centennial of her mother’s birth with the new book Ruth Orkin: A Photo Spirit and exhibition “Ruth Orkin: Expressions of Life”. Working across genres, Orkin created a singular archive of mid-twentieth century life, capturing a feeling of optimism that defined the modern. Orkin’s empathic eye found its home whether photographing celebrities or strangers she encountered on the street.
Although Orkin was an unconventional mother, telling her children Mary and Andy to call her “Ruth” so she could hear them in a crowd, she never put work above her family. Although she always carried a camera around her neck, Orkin brilliantly integrated her practice into every aspect of her life to avoid any sense of intruding upon those she loved.
An Unstoppable Force
As the daughter of silent film actress Mary Ruby, Ruth Orkin grew up behind the cameras in Hollywood and began taking photographs at the tender age of 10 after receiving her first camera, a 39-cent Univex. She picked up a copy of Photography for Fun, a 25-cent booklet written by William M. Strong, which offered a snappy chapter on “How to Learn Photography.” Among the six tips was: “Get some more books on photography,” a lesson Orkin took to heart as she consumed everything on the subject available at the Los Angeles public library.
After briefly attending Los Angeles City College to study photojournalism, Orkin took a job as the first messenger girl at MGM Studio, with the dream of one day becoming a cinematographer. “As a messenger being sent here and there I saw a lot more of the studio operation than almost any other employee,” Orkin revealed in her unpublished biography, written in 1984, selections from which are included in A Photo Spirit.
“Not only did I have a lot more freedom than secretaries, wardrobe or make-up women, or even a script girl (who was on the set all day). I had the attention and help of all the men in the technical departments (because that was where my interests lay). In how the cameras worked, in the moviolas, the sound stage booths, the music editing screening rooms.” But things didn’t go quite as she hoped. After learning Cinematographer’s Guild, then known as IATSE Camera Local 659, did not allow female members, Orkin left and joined the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps at 20 in the hopes of gaining filmmaking skills.
In 1943, Orkin settled in New York to pursue her dream of being a freelance photojournalist in a male-dominated field. Two years later, Orkin got her big break when The New York Times commissioned her to photograph musician Leonard Bernstein. From there she went on to photograph street scenes and celebrities like Marlon Brando, Ava Gardner, and Tennessee Williams for leading publications including LIFE, Look, and Ladies Home Journal.
History in the Making
In 1952, Ruth Orkin married photographer and filmmaker Morris Engel, a fellow member of the New York Photo League, and together they became a powerful force in the city’s independent art film scene. They collaborated on the films Little Fugitive (1953) and Lovers and Lollipops (1955). “We couldn’t have made the movies if we hadn’t been photographers first,” Orkin wrote in her memoir.
“Usually when people in Hollywood direct their first movie it’s because they’ve had experience in other parts of movie-making; scriptwriting, acting, cinematography, editing, assistant director or the theater. (All Morris and I had was experience putting little stories together with still pictures). And when they sit in the director’s chair for the first time they have a whole experienced crew to back them up. We had only our inexperienced selves.”
But their inexperience allowed them the freedom to innovate on a level that would change film history. Little Fugitive took the top award at the Venice Film Festival, received an Academy Award nomination, and would be recognized by no less than François Truffaut as the inspiration for French New Wave cinema. After completing Lovers and Lollipops, Orkin returned to photography with an expanded vocabulary, which can be seen in the six-photograph sequence of children playing cards on a stoop, her contribution to “The Family of Man,” Edward Steichen’s landmark 1955 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.
The Perfect Photo Studio
“I think in those days it was an advantage to be female, if only for one reason: Strangers were much less suspicious of you,” Ruth Orkin wrote, a sentiment that women street photographers have echoed in 2021. “With a smile and my most innocent, ingratiating manner I could get cooperation from initially hostile subjects. I may not have had acting talent like my mother, but I believe I learned early, what most people photographers do, that you have to ‘act’ and play each situation by ear.”
Orkin’s ability to adapt to her environment became a key ingredient in her ability to create timeless street photographs. She described the majestically lit waiting room at New York’s famed Penn Station as “my perfect free photography studio.” Here she would search out images of people lost in thought, casting perfectly modeled poses without any semblance of self-consciousness. Taking tremendous care to be unobtrusive and still, she would wait until there was a noise that could cover the sound of the shutter, even if that meant losing the shot.
“I went to Penn Station recently and realized how hard it was for Ruth to do what she did,” says Mary Engel. “What’s interesting is that there’s such a strong percentage of great images shot on only five rolls of film. She always edited with her eye. She said she used to wait for her finger to freeze before she would click the shutter. Ruth didn’t just let a moment go by. Everything in her life was seizing the moment.”
By Miss Rosen
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer focusing on art, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in books, magazines, including Time, Vogue, Aperture, and Vice, among others.
“Ruth Orkin: Expressions of Life” is on view at Fotografiska New York through December 5, 2021.
Ruth Orkin: A Photo Spirit is published by Hatje Cantz, $44.