Orkin, Ruth (1921–1985)

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Orkin, Ruth (1921–1985)

Twentieth-century American photojournalist and filmmaker. Born Ruth Orkin in Boston, Massachusetts, on September 3, 1921; died of cancer in New York, New York, on January 18, 1985; daughter of Sam Orkin (a businessman) and Mary Ruby Orkin (a former actress); attended Beverly Hills and Eagle Rock high schools, 1935–39; married Morris Engel, in 1945; children: Andy Engel (b. 1959); Mary Engel (b. 1961).


third-prize winner in Life magazine's Young Photographers Contest (1951); Silver Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival (1953); Academy Award nominee for Best Motion Picture Story (1953); voted one of the Top Ten Women Photographers in the U.S. by the Professional Photographers of America (1959); Manhattan Cultural Award for Photography (1980).

Family moved to California (1924); received her first camera, a 39c Univex (1931); had first photo exhibit, at Eagle Rock camera store (1939); undertook a solo 2,000-mile bicycle trip to the World's Fair, New York City (1939); was first female messenger hired by MGM Studios (1941); joined the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (1941); moved to New York City (1943); purchased her first 35mm camera (1943); photographed classical musicians at Tanglewood Music Festival (1946–50); photographed her famous six-picture sequence "The Cardplayers" (1947); traveled with the Israeli Philharmonic during its first American tour (1951); collaborated with husband on the award-winning feature film Little Fugitive (1953); collaborated with husband on a second feature, Lovers and Lollipops (1955); "The Cardplayers" included in Edward Steichen's "Family of Man" exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (1955); photographs included in the Photography in the Fine Arts exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1965); had first retrospective exhibit, Nikon House (1974); was an instructor, School of Visual Arts (1976–78); was an instructor, International Center for Photography (1980); posthumous retrospective exhibit at the International Center of Photography, New York City (1995).

Selected works:

A World Through My Window (1978); A Photo Journal (1981); More Pictures from My Window (1983).

America was a golden age of photojournalism from around 1930 to 1960. In this 30-year period, before television's domination, advances in printing methods led to a deluge of illustrated magazines. It was through the photographs and accompanying text in such magazines as Life, This Week, and Look, that most middle-class Americans learned about business, culture, politics, and other nations. Among the most successful photojournalists of the time was Ruth Orkin. Throughout her extensive career, which began around 1942, Orkin's photographs were regularly reprinted in national family magazines and exhibited in galleries and museums across the country. She photographed a wide variety of subjects—from Hollywood starlets to classical musicians to people on the street. Orkin's special gift was her ability to artfully render the most complicated human drama in a single image. "Intelligent, precise, often human dramas," said Gordon Parks, "her work always seemed to find a human story to tell by looking more closely than the rest of us."

Ruth Orkin was born on September 3, 1921, in Boston, Massachusetts, the only child of Sam and Mary Ruby Orkin . In 1924, the family moved to Los Angeles where Ruth grew up under the spell of Hollywood and the motion-picture industry. Before her marriage, Mary Orkin had toured the country as part of a vaudeville act, "The Lillian Sisters," and had worked briefly as a silent-movie actress. Though she settled down to a life of domesticity with her husband and daughter, Mary remained passionately interested in show business. She regularly attended film premieres and celebrity funerals, usually in the company of her daughter. Ruth herself was stage-struck. As an adolescent, she had a reputation for being one of the most aggressive and successful autograph hounds in Los Angeles and was once interviewed about her autographing exploits on a popular local radio show. In 1935, at age 13, she started a movie diary and for the next seven years faithfully recorded and rated every film she saw.

Her father Sam Orkin was a businessman who possessed a mechanical wizardry. He owned and operated a successful company, The Orkin Fleet, where he designed and built toy boats that are now collectibles. The Orkins nurtured their only child's budding interests while enjoying a comfortable lifestyle. At age ten, Ruth got her first camera, a 39c Univex. Two years later, she received a darkroom set. At 14, she acquired a one-dollar Baby Brownie Camera and began taking snapshots of her classmates and teachers for a nickel apiece. At 16, she started to photograph with a Pilot 6 camera and shortly thereafter held her first photographic exhibit at a local camera store. The following year, she read Richard Halliburton's The Royal Road which inspired her to travel. After her high school graduation in 1939, Orkin undertook a grueling 2,000-mile solo bicycle trip, staying in youth hostels along the way, to attend the World's Fair in New York City. Later, she put together a scrapbook of the cross-country adventure, which had generated a good deal of publicity, with some 300 contact prints and a diary.

Upon her return to California, she enrolled in the Los Angeles Community College but left after one year. "My main ambition was to make movies," she later wrote. The following year, in 1940, 21-year-old Orkin became the first "messenger girl" at MGM studio, a job she hoped would lead to a career in the movie business. The position allowed her to observe the technical side of filmmaking, an area which greatly interested her. She learned how to operate a moviola and the sound-mixing boards, and watched editing and dubbing sessions. Orkin aspired to become a camera operator, but she soon learned that the cinematographers' union did not admit women. Undaunted, she joined the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAACS) later that year under the mistaken notion that she was to be sent to the Signal Corps in Astoria, New York, where she would be trained to make films. As it turned out, she was posted to Arkansas where her ambitions to be a filmmaker were thwarted once again.

In 1943, Orkin moved to New York City with the idea of becoming a professional photographer, a vocation that seemed friendlier to women. She worked at a series of odd jobs, including a stint as a nightclub photographer, to save money to buy her first 35mm camera. "The minute I had that 35mm camera, a whole new world of seeing opened to me. I went wild shooting in public places, looking for the best light and for subjects who wouldn't be aware of my presence." She set up a makeshift darkroom in her tiny apartment and began perfecting her technique. Though she was primarily self-taught, Orkin socialized with other photographers, including Weegee and Arnold Newman.

Her first professional assignments were for small publications, including Publishers Weekly, Musical Courier, and Chess Review. Her reputation as a talented and original photographer was quickly established, however, and throughout the 1940s and early 1950s Orkin's black-and-white photographs of celebrities and street scenes appeared regularly in Look, Life, Ladies' Home Journal, Coronot, Collier's, Cosmopolitan, and This Week. What distinguished an Orkin photograph was the extraordinary drama that was revealed in the most seemingly ordinary face, action, or scene. Critics praised her uncanny ability to create a story out of a single image. Her subjects were often celebrities and well-known figures, and the efforts she took with each assignment paid off in surprising ways: a triumphant and regal Artur Rubinstein strolling down a Manhattan street greeting admirers; a laughing, playful Albert Einstein (1953); a brooding, reflective Marlon Brando dressed as Brutus (1952); and a straight-faced Woody Allen posing before a painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1963). One of her most intimate portraits was the 1949 photograph of Carson McCullers cradled in the arms of Ethel Waters after an opening night performance of McCullers' play The Member of the Wedding. The photograph was taken as part of an assignment for Life, though the magazine initially refused to run the picture: the image of a white woman nestled in the arms of a black woman was deemed too controversial.

Although Orkin remained smitten with Hollywood, she recognized the darker side of the motion-picture business. With the viewpoint of an erstwhile messenger girl and the skill of a professional photographer, Orkin returned to MGM in 1948, intent on capturing the seamier side of the business. Many of these photographs were later published in This Week, a Sunday supplement with a circulation of 12 million.

Orkin was also fascinated by street scenes, and some of her best-known photographs, including the 1946 "Jimmy the Storyteller" sequence which appeared in Look magazine, were shot in the West Village neighborhood where she took up residence in 1945. In 1947, Orkin photographed her famous six-picture sequence, "The Cardplayers," which depicts three young children sitting around a wagon playing cards. The sequence was later included in Edward Steichen's groundbreaking 1955 "Family of Man" exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art.

In the finest tradition of photojournalism, her photographs tell extended stories.

In 1945, Orkin inaugurated one of her most important photographic projects when she photographed a shirtless Leonard Bernstein for The New York Times. Orkin was a great fan of classical music, and the assignment sparked an extended study of classical musicians. She preferred shooting them in rehearsal, she said, because "you get to listen to all that great music and the subjects are ideal; they're moving constantly and are too engrossed in their work to be aware of the camera." From 1947 though 1953, she photographed most of the top conductors and soloists performing in the United States, including Bernstein, Isaac Stern, Arturo Toscanini, Vladimir Horowitz, and Dimitri Mitropoulos. During the summers, she regularly attended and photographed rehearsals at Lewisohn Stadium in New York and at the Tanglewood Music Festival in Massachusetts. Orkin published her own illustrated guidebook to Tanglewood in 1947 and 1948, and in 1947 seven of the prints were included in an exhibition of music photographs at the Museum of Modern Art.

In 1951, she photographed the Israeli Philharmonic's first American tour and then accompanied the symphony back to Israel. While there, she lived for a few months on a kibbutz, then traveled and photographed Florence, Venice, Paris, Rome, and London. While abroad that year, she took what is arguably her best-known image, "American Girl in Italy," which depicts a young woman clutching the shawl around her neck, nervously hurrying past a group of openly admiring Italian men. As with many of her well-known photographs, this single-image drama was artfully posed by Orkin.

In 1952, she married Morris Engel, a photographer and filmmaker whom she had met at the Photo League, and over the next four years she concentrated on filmmaking. Their first collaboration, Little Fugitive, about a young boy who mistakenly believes he has killed his brother and runs away to Coney Island, was released in 1953 to great critical acclaim. The film received the Silver Lion award at that year's Venice Film Festival, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Screenplay, and was credited by the filmmaker François Truffaut for influencing the French New Wave. In 1955, Orkin and Engel collaborated on another acclaimed film, Lovers and Lollipops.

In 1959, Orkin was voted one of the Top Ten Women Photographers in the U.S. by the Professional Photographers of America. Following the birth of her son Andy that same year (a daughter Mary was born in 1961), Orkin ceased working professionally and concentrated instead on raising and photographing her children. "I was fascinated by every stage of [their] development, and I felt compelled to record in both words and pictures each momentous occasion." By this time, the family had moved to a 15th-floor apartment overlooking Central Park, and Orkin began taking color photographs of the panoramic view from the window. The photographs, taken without filters, were shot in every season and at all hours. From the skyline to park concerts, celebrations, demonstrations, parades, and riots, her images captured the magic and complexity of the city. In 1978, 81 of these photographs were published as A World Through My Window. A sequel, More Pictures from My Window, followed in 1983. The collections, said Parks, were "classics of American photography."

In the 1960s and 1970s, Orkin's photographs began appearing in museum exhibitions and galleries. In 1965, her pictures were included in a photography exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and in 1974 her first retrospective exhibit was held at the Nikon House in New York City. That same year, Orkin published her autobiography, A Photo Journal. In 1980, she received the First Annual Manhattan Cultural Award in Photography. Throughout the early 1980s, despite being diagnosed with cancer, Orkin continued to work. She died on January 18, 1985, age 63.

sources and suggested reading:

Chicago Sun-Times. December 16, 1979.

The New York Times. October 5, 1979, September 17, 1985.

Orkin, Ruth. More Pictures from My Window. NY: Rizzoli, 1983.

——. A Photo Journal. NY: Viking Press, 1981.

——. Ruth Orkin. NY: M. Engel, The Estate of Ruth Orkin, 1995.

——, and Arno Karlen. A World Through My Window. NY: Harper and Row, 1978.

Suzanne Smith , freelance writer, Decatur, Georgia