Leonard Bernstein, 1947
American Girl In Italy, 1951
Ruth Orkin was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on 3 September 1921, the daughter, and only child, of the silent film actress, Mary Ruby. Orkin grew up in Hollywood in its heyday, due to her mother’s career. 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 for photojournalism in 1940, prior to becoming the first messenger girl at MGM Studios in 1941, fuelled by her desire to become a cinematographer. She left the position after discovering the union did not allow female members. She joined the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps during World War II. By 1943, she had moved to New York permanently, and had begun working as a freelance photo-journalist.
Orkin began working as a nightclub photographer, receiving her first assignment in 1945 from The New York Times to shoot Leonard Bernstein, the American composer, conductor and pianist. She went on to work for various magazines, taking photo-essays and portraits. She contributed to LIFE, Look, Ladies’ Home Journal and others.
In 1951 LIFE magazine sent her to Israel with the Israeli Philharmonic. She was then sent to Florence, Italy. There, she met a young girl called Nina Lee Craig, an art student and fellow American. Orkin photographed Craig in various scenarios, originally calling the series 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 image is called American Girl in Italy and is now perhaps her most celebrated image. Craig has stated that the image was not staged, but was just one of many taken candidly throughout the day, aiming to show the joys of travelling alone.
In 1952, on her return to New York, Orkin married Morris Engel, the photographer and filmmaker. A year later, they produced the film The Little Fugitive, which met with huge critical acclaim and was nominated for an Academy Award. After the success of the two films, 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. The resulting photographs were collected and published in two books: A World Through My Window (1978) and More Pictures Through My Window (1978).
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. Ruth Orkin died in New York on 16 January 1985.