Ruth Orkin: Expressions of Life

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

About Eleanor Foa Dienstag (31 Articles)
Eleanor Foa Dienstag is a veteran author, journalist, photo-journalist and award-winning corporate writer. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Harper's, the New Republic, the New York Observer, Ms., Travel & Leisure, and many other websites and publications. Eleanor is the author of three books. Her most recent, available on Amazon and Centro Primo Levi is MIXED MESSAGES: Reflections on an Italian Jewish Family and Exile. It is a multi-layered memoir about Eleanor’s personal journey, her father’s exile from Fascist Italy and the Foa Family journey, whose Italian-Jewish roots go back to the 1500s in northern Italy where her ancestors were famous printers. WHITHER THOU GOEST: The Story of an Uprooted Wife, also a memoir, was acclaimed by Business Week for its insights into corporate life. Her third book, In Good Company: 125 Years At The Heinz Table, offered a unique view of a quintessential American company. Eleanor served as staff speechwriter to the Chairman and CEO of American Express. In 1983, she founded Eleanor Foa Associates (www.eleanorfoa.com). It provides a wide variety of corporate writing and marketing services. Eleanor is past president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA), received speechwriting awards from IABC, and was awarded literary residencies at Yaddo, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (VCCA). She resides in Manhattan.