Fotografiska, with the support of Mary Engel, Director of the Ruth Orkin Photo Archive, has mounted a splendid – and long overdue – exhibition of Orkin’s work, both as a photographer and filmmaker.
Born in 1921, Orkin was way ahead of her time in both her personal and professional life. Although she grew up in Hollywood, when she was 17 years old, she took a bike trip across the U.S. to see the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City, taking photographs as she went. In 1943 she moved permanently to New York City to become a professional photographer and never looked back.
As this exhibition makes clear, she was a wonderful street photographer – wherever she travelled – with an unerring eye. In fact, in 1955, she was one of the few women included in Edward Steichen’s monumental photography exhibition at the Modern Museum of Art, “The Family of Man.”
American Girl in Italy, Florence, 1951
Ever since I first saw Orkin’s most famous image (above), taken in 1951 in Florence, of a young woman being ogled by Italian men, I fell in love with her work. I’d just returned, a young girl in my teens, from a trip to Italy and Orkin’s photograph stopped me in my tracks. It totally captured how it looked and felt for a young American woman to walk alone in the streets of Italy. Decades before feminism, her iconic image of the male gaze said it all.
Three Boys on Suitcase, Penn Station, 1947
For those of us who grew up in post-war New York, her images of the city, from Penn Station to the Third Avenue El, from the 1940s to the 1960s, are a particular delight. Like Steiglitz, Steichen, Abbott, Meyerowitz, and all the great street photographers, she captured an era that had a grit and glamour all its own.
Snow Covered Cars, NYC, 1952
Couple on Beach, Coney Island, 1949
Tired Little Boy After Circus, 1949
Richie eating Cotton Candy, Little Fugitive, Coney Island, 1953
She had a particular gift for capturing the emotions of children. Which is no doubt one reason why she and her husband, also a photographer, Morris Engel, both inexperienced in filmmaking, created a film, “Little Fugitive,” which unexpectedly won worldwide acclaim and was said, by Truffaut, to have inspired “The New Wave” in French filmmaking.
Leonard Bernstein with sister Shirley in Greenroom at Carnegie Hall, 1950
Albert Einstein, Princeton, New Jersey, 1955
Robert Capa, Paris, 1951
Look Magazine sent her on assignment to photograph Leonard Bernstein, which launched her career as a portraitist of the famous and near famous. But like so many photographers, especially women photographers, it was difficult to get assignments. And she was aware of how much less she was being paid then her male counterparts.
In the 1960s, after the birth of her two children, Orkin – who lived with her husband on Central Park West – became a renowned photographer of Central Park, both from above and on the paths, below. She never stopped shooting, on the streets, and behind the scenes, continuing to capture New Yorkers, in all their ‘60s threads and moods. She never lost her eye for what was significant and timeless.
As rich a survey of her work as this exhibition is, I recommend – which I rarely do – purchasing a copy of the photo book accompanying the show. With a foreword by her daughter, Mary Engel, who is the archivist for both her mother and father’s work, it provides – through its text as well as its images– a fuller biographical context for her struggles and achievements. To her daughter, Orkin was “larger than life.” After seeing this exhibition, I think most viewers will agree.
Ruth Orkin: Expressions of Life
Fotografiska – Through December 5th
281 Park Avenue South
Text and Photos by Eleanor Foa Dienstag