Ruth Orkin

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Ruth Orkin is best known for her photograph An American Girl in Italy, as well as many other works which captured Hollywood greats including Lauren Bacall, Doris Day, Ava Gardner and Marlon Brando in their heyday. She was also a filmmaker and produced the award-winning film Little Fugitive, in 1952 with her husband, Morris Engel.

Ruth Orkin Prints

Artist Biography

Ruth Orkin (1921 – 1985) was born in Boston, Massachusetts. Her mother was the silent film actress, Mary Ruby and Orkin grew up in Hollywood in its Golden Age. She developed a passion for photography from the age of ten, receiving her first camera, a 39-cent Unisex. At the age of seventeen, Orkin made national headlines by cycling from Los Angeles to New York to see the 1939 World’s Fair, photographing her journey along the way.

Orkin briefly attended Los Angeles City College to study photojournalism in 1940, prior to becoming the first messenger girl at MGM Studios in 1941, with the aim of eventually becoming a cinematographer. She left the position after discovering the union did not allow female members.

By 1943, Orkin had moved to New York permanently, and had begun working as a freelance photojournalist. She began working as a nightclub photographer, receiving her first assignment in 1945 from The New York Times to photograph Leonard Bernstein, the American composer, conductor and pianist. She went on to work for various magazines, producing photo-essays and portraits for LIFE, Look and Ladies’ Home Journal among others. 

In 1951, she travelled to Israel with LIFE magazine with the Israeli Philharmonic. She was then sent to Florence, Italy. There, she met Nina Lee Craig, then going by the name of Jinx Allen, an art student and fellow American. Orkin had the idea of photographing Allen around the city to reflect the experience of solo travelling in the hope of creating an interesting photo story. Orkin photographed Craig in various scenarios, and the series of photographs was first published as a photo-essay in Cosmopolitan in 1952 with the title ‘Don’t Be Afraid to Travel Alone.’ The series included an image of Craig confidently walking past a group of ogling Italian men in Florence. The resulting image, ‘American Girl in Italy’, is now perhaps her most celebrated image. 

In 1952, on her return to New York, Orkin married Morris Engel, a fellow photographer and filmmaker. A year later, they produced the film The Little Fugitive, which was met with critical acclaim and was nominated for an Academy Award. Orkin continued working as a photographer, taking colour photographs of Central Park as seen through her apartment window. She photographed marathons, parades, concerts and demonstrations, all set against the changing of the seasons.

Orkin taught photography at the School of Visual Arts, New York, in the late 1970s, and at the International Center of Photography in the 1980s. The first retrospective exhibition of her work was held in 1974 at the Nikon House in New York and her work has been published in numerous publications including A World Through My Window (1978) and More Pictures Through My Window (1978). She died in New York on 16 January 1985.

© Ruth Orkin Photo Archive, Courtesy of Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York


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