Ruth Orkin (1921-1985), renowned for her exceptional talent in photography, stood among the most accomplished photographers of her era. She not only received accolades as a distinguished photojournalist in a men-dominated industry but also made a mark as a filmmaker. Through her compelling imagery, Orkin portrayed the allure found within ordinary moments of life and empowered numerous women to pursue their dreams.
Ruth with camera, 1947
Ruth Orkin grew up in the glamorous Hollywood of the 1920s and 1930s. Fascinated by photography from a young age, she got her first camera at ten. At seventeen, Orkin embarked on a cross-country bicycle trip, capturing her journey to New York City and the 1939 World’s Fair. At twenty-two, she settled in New York, ready to seize the city’s opportunities.
Yet, Orkin’s true passion lay in the world of film. After some time at Los Angeles City College, she broke barriers by becoming Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s first female studio messenger. Aspiring to master cinematography, she encountered the unfortunate reality of the cinematographers’ union’s exclusion of women. Still determined to pursue her dream, she joined the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps during World War II. Its advertising promised a chance to learn filmmaking, but she again faced disappointment. After an honorable discharge, she decided to pursue a career as a photojournalist, as there were no unions to keep women out, as she put it.
Comic book readers, NYC, 1947
Jewish refugees, Lydda Airport, 1951
Her photography is defined by honesty, sensitivity, and profound regard for her subjects. Through her lens, ordinary moments of everyday life—filled with drama, romance, and joy—become captivating and imbued with intrigue, reminiscent of stills from classic Hollywood films.
While in Italy, she crossed paths with Ninalee “Jinx” Allen Craig, a fellow solo traveler and art student. It was a photograph of Jinx being stared at by a group of men as she passed by that would become Orkin’s most recognizable image.
American girl in Italy, Florence, 1951
This photograph became part of a series titled Don’t Be Afraid to Travel Alone, later published in Cosmopolitan magazine. Orkin saw this photograph as a powerful representation of resistance and resilience. It conveyed a profound message to women, urging them not to let men discourage or hinder them from pursuing their aspirations.
I’ve always pursued my own desires and passions.
At this point in her career, Orkin had established herself as a pioneering female photographer in a predominantly male-dominated world. Upon her return to New York, she married Morris Engel, a photographer and filmmaker. Together, they collaborated on two feature films, one of which (Little Fugitive) received an Academy Award nomination in 1953.
Einstein at Princeton luncheon, NJ, 1953
Central Park South silhouette, 1955
Orkin’s talent led her to work with renowned magazines and make portraits of iconic figures of the time. Also, from her New York apartment with a view of Central Park, Orkin captured marathons, parades, concerts, demonstrations, and the ever-changing seasons. These photographs were later compiled into the book, A World Through My Window (1978). In the very same apartment, Orkin passed away at 63, after a long battle with cancer.
Words of wisdom
“There’s nothing more interesting than the landscape of the human face.” —Irvin Kershner
“A picture is a secret about a secret, the more it tells you the less you know.” ―Diane Arbus
“One day, in retrospect, the years of struggle will strike you as the most beautiful.” ―Sigmund Freud
“For every minute you are angry you lose sixty seconds of happiness.” ―Ralph Waldo Emerson