Ruth Orkin

Profile Ruth Orkin

© Ruth Orkin

“…If my photographs make the viewer feel what I did when I first took them – then I’ve accomplished my purpose.” – Ruth Orkin

─── by Elizabeth Kahn, January 29, 2024
  • One of the finest photographers of her time, Ruth Orkin was an award-winning photojournalist and filmmaker, whose deeply absorbing images capture the charm and intrigue of quotidian life.

    Street photography by Ruth Orkin, couple in MG
    'Couple in MG', Florence, 1951

    Orkin was born in Boston, MA, in 1921, to Mary Ruby, a silent-film actress, and Samuel Orkin, a manufacturer of toy boats. The family relocated to Hollywood when Orkin was still very young, and her formative decades coincided with the rise of the US film industry, which was galvanized by the economic prosperity of the time.

    She was just ten years old when she received her first camera, which she used to photograph her school friends and teachers. At 17, she cycled across the United States, to New York City, (to see the 1939 World’s Fair) photographing prolifically along the way.

    Street photography by Ruth Orkin, Four children, three girls and one boy, loiter on a sidewalk by a store display window while reading comic books, New York City, 1947 (Photo by Ruth Orkin/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
    'Comic book readers', NYC, 1947
    Street photography by Ruth Orkin, mother and daughter
    'Mother and daughter', Penn Station, NYC, 1947
    Street photography by Ruth Orkin, couple embracing
    'Couple under marquee', NYC, 1948

    The world of film, however, was Orkin’s true passion, and after briefly enrolling in Los Angeles City College, she joined Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer as their first female studio messenger. She had hoped to learn cinematography but soon discovered that the cinematographers’ union did not allow female members, and so, during the Second World War, she left and enlisted in the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps.

    Their recruitment adverts promised the opportunity to learn filmmaking, but once again, Orkin was left disappointed, and after being honorably discharged, she decided to become a photojournalist, as, in her own words ‘There wasn’t any union to keep out women’.

    Street photography by Ruth Orkin, Jewish refugees
    'Jewish refugees', Lydda Airport, 1951

    She relocated to New York City and found work as a nightclub photographer. During the day, she also shot baby portraits to make extra money, which enabled the purchase of her first ‘professional’ camera. She spent her free time wandering the city streets, capturing compelling images of everyday life, including candid portraits of children in her neighborhood.

    This led to the publication of her first major photo essay, entitled ‘Jimmy, the Storyteller’, (which starred a young local boy)  in LOOK magazine, in 1946, and she spent the remainder of the decade undertaking assignments for leading magazines, photographing some of the most notable names from the world of music, film, and television.

    Street photography by Ruth Orkin
    'Joyous man with boys at Italian restaurant' Rome, 1951

    Her work is characterized by honesty and sensitivity, as well as the same deep regard for her subjects that underpinned the images of the other great photographers of the post-war period. Through her lens, fragments of everyday life –  moments of drama, romance, and gaiety  – become utterly absorbing, imbued with a sense of intrigue, as though they are stills from some Hollywood production of the time.

    In 1951, she was sent to Israel on commission from LIFE magazine to photograph the Israel Philarmonic Orchestra. After completing the assignment, she spent several months traveling throughout Italy, (and several other European countries) where she captured some of her most iconic work.

    Street photography by Ruth Orkin, woman walking down street, Florence, surrounded by jeering men
    'American girl in Italy', Florence, 1951

    In Florence, she met her compatriot, Ninalee “Jinx” Allen Craig, an art student who would become the model for a series based upon their experiences travelling as women. Allen Craig recalls “Ruth said, ‘Hey, you know what, I could probably make a bit of money if we horse around and show what it’s like to be a woman alone”. The two spent several hours on the streets of the Tuscan Capital during which Orkin captured perhaps her most iconic shot, Allen Craig, walking alone amongst a horde of leering men. Despite seemingly conveying a strong sense of disquiet, Allen-Craig’s recollection presents a quite contrasting narrative to the image’s often misinterpreted representation.

    “My expression is not one of distress; that was just how I stalked around the city. I saw myself as Beatrice of Dante’s Divine Comedy. You had to walk with complete assurance and maintain dignity at all times. The last thing you would do would be to look them in the eye and smile. I did not want to encourage them. This image has been interpreted in a sinister way, but it was quite the opposite. They were having fun, and so was I.”

    As for Orkin, it represented defiance and strength, a message to women, not to allow men to deter them from following their dreams

    Street photography by Ruth Orkin, two men, Rome
    'Two men', Piazza della Signoria, Florence, 1951
    Street photography by Ruth Orkin, couple on Vespa, Rome, 1951
    'Couple on Vespa', Rome, 1951

    Upon her return to the US, Orkin began a relationship with fellow photographer Morris Engel, and in 1952, the pair married. Despite the early setbacks she faced whilst trying to become a cinematographer, her desire had never completely disappeared, and in 1953, she collaborated with her husband, along with writer and filmmaker, Raymond Abrashkin, to produce the film, Little Fugitive, which was nominated for an Academy Award.

    Street photography by Ruth Orkin, girl with doll
    'Little girl in Penn Station', NYC, 1947
    Street photography by Ruth Orkin
    'Jinx in beads', Florence, 1951

    Though she continued to photograph for the remainder of her career, she did so with less purpose than before. Filmmaking became her primary focus from then on, leading to the release of Lovers and Lollipops in 1956, which she wrote and produced alongside her husband.

    During her distinguished career (and indeed in the years since her passing) Orkin’s work was exhibited extensively across the US and internationally. In 1978 ‘A World Through My Window’, a collection of photographs she captured from her apartment that overlooked Central Park, was published, followed by ‘More Pictures from My Window’ in 1983. She passed away, in the same Manhattan apartment, two years later, aged 63, after a long battle with cancer.

    Street photography by Ruth Orkin, central park, NYC, silhouette
    'Central Park south silhouette', NYC, 1955

    Following her death, her daughter Mary set up the Ruth Orkin Photo Archive, in order to preserve her legacy. It then became the Orkin/Engel Film and Photo Archive, after the death of Morris in 2005. Today, Orkin’s work is held in the permanent collections of various leading museums and galleries, including, MOMA and the International Centre of Photography.

    She will be remembered as a fearless and innovative practitioner, a pioneer of street photography whose tenacity, perceptivity, and grace, continue to resonate and inspire today.


    All images © Ruth Orkin
    Used with special permission of the Ruth Orkin Photo Archive

    – A landmark retrospective entitled, Ruth Orkin: The Illusion of Time, is on view at Kutxa Kultur Artgeunea, San Sebastián, Spain, until November 6, 2022