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 Ruth (Engell) Orkin  (1921 - 1985)

About: Ruth (Engell) Orkin


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Lived/Active: New York/California/Massachusetts      Known for: figure and genre photojournalism, filmaking

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Ruth Orkin was an award-winning photojournalist and filmmaker. Orkin was the only child of Mary Ruby, a silent-film actress, and Samuel Orkin, a manufacturer of toy boats called Orkin Craft.

She grew up in Hollywood in the heyday of the 1920s and 1930s. At the age of 10, she received her first camera, a 39 cent Univex. She began by photographing her friends and teachers at school. At 17 years old she took a monumental bicycle trip across the United States from Los Angeles to New York City to see the 1939 World’s Fair, and she photographed along the way.

Orkin moved to New York in 1943, where she worked as a nightclub photographer and shot baby pictures by day to buy her first professional camera. She worked for all the major magazines in 1940s, and also went to Tanglewood during the summers to shoot rehearsals. She ended up with many of the worlds’ greatest musicians of the time including Leonard Bernstein, Isaac Stern, Aaron Copland, Jascha Heifitz, Serge Koussevitzky and many others.

In 1951, LIFE magazine sent her to Israel with the Israeli Philharmonic. Orkin then went to Italy, and it was in Florence where she met Nina Lee Craig, an art student and fellow American, who became the subject of “American Girl in Italy.” The photograph was part of a series originally titled “Don’t Be Afraid to Travel Alone” about what they encountered as women traveling alone in Europe after the war.

On her return to New York, Orkin married the photographer and filmmaker Morris Engel. Together they produced two feature films, including the classic Little Fugitive, which was nominated for an Academy Award in 1953.

From their New York apartment overlooking Central Park, Orkin photographed marathons, parades, concerts, demonstrations, and the beauty of the changing seasons. These photographs were the subject of two widely acclaimed books, A World Through My Window and More Pictures From My Window.

After a long struggle with cancer, Orkin passed away in her apartment, surrounded by her wonderful legacy of photographs with the view of Central Park outside her window.


Biography from Cavalier Galleries Inc.:
Ruth Orkin


1921 Born September 3 in Boston, Massachusetts

1924 Family moves to Los Angeles, California

1931 Receives first camera, thirty-nine-cent Univex

1935-39 Attends Beverly Hills and Eagle Rock High Schools, California
First photo exhibit at camera store, Eagle Rock, California

1939 Bicycle trip from Los Angeles to see 1939 World’s Fair in New York City; bikes two thousand miles in four months through five major cities

1940 Attends Los Angeles City College for one year

1941 First messenger girl at MGM Studios, but not permitted to join cinematographer’s union because she was a woman
Joins Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps under false impression she would be taught how to make movies

1943 Moves to New York, has several odd jobs including one as a nightclub photographer
Early assignments for Theatre Week and Chess Review

1945 First assignment for The New York Times to photograph Leonard Bernstein with the NYC Symphony
Moves to West Village and photographs in her neighborhood
Attends The Photo League lectures, meets PM newspaper photographer, Morris Engel

1945-52 Intensive freelance career for Life, Look, This Week, Ladies Home journal, Cosmopolitan and Coronet

1946-50 Photographs classical musicians during summers at Lewisohn Stadium, New York, and Tanglewood Music Festival, Massachusetts; publishes guidebook of photos of Leonard Bernstein, Isaac Stern, et al.

1951 Wins third prize in Life magazine’s Young Photographer’s Contest
Goes to Israel on press junket with Israeli Philharmonic and photographs people of Israel and lives on a kibbutz
In Italy, meets Jinx Allen at hotel and does picture story “Don’t Be Afraid to Travel Alone;” shoots her classic image American Girl in Italy

1952 Marries Morris Engel in New York City while working with him on the film Little Fugitive

1953 Little Fugitive is nominated for Academy Award for best motion picture story and wins Silver Lion at Venice Film Festival; Francois Truffaut credits Little Fugitive with starting the French New Wave

1955 Makes second award-winning film with Engel, Lovers and Lollipops
The Cardplayers is the only sequence included in Edward Steichen’s Family of Man exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art

1959 Son Andy born
Voted one of Top Ten Women Photographers in the U.S. by Professional Photographers of America

1961 Daughter Mary born

1965 Included in Photography in the Fine Arts exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

1974 First retrospective exhibition at Nikon House in New York City
1976-78 Instructor, School of Visual Arts

1977 First exhibition at The Witkin Gallery

1978 A World Through My Window, published by Harper and Row

1980 First Annual Manhattan Cultural Award in Photography
Instructor, International Center of Photography

1981 A Photo journal published by The Viking Press; photo-autobiography, containing 170 black-and-white photographs

1983 More Pictures From My Window published by Rizzoli

1985 Dies January 16 in New York City

Nikon House, New York, NY (1974)
Witkin Gallery, New York, NY (1977)
Enjay Gallery, Boston, MA (1977)
Milwaukee Center of Photography, WI (1978)
Kiva Gallery, Boston, MA (1978)
International Center of Photography, New York, NY (1979)
University of Akron, Akron, OH (1979)
Rizzoli Bookstore. Chicago, IL (1979)
Rizzoli Bookstore (thru 1985), New York, NY (1979)
Afterimage Gallery. Dallas, TX (1979)
Atlanta Gallery of Photography, Atlanta, GA (1980)
Witkin Gallery, New York, NY (1981)
Douglas Elliot Gallery. San Francisco. CA (1982)
Rizzoli Bookstore, Costa Mesa, Chicago. IL (1982)
Equivalents Gallery. Seattle, WA (1983)
Witkin Gallery, NYC(1985)
Photo Gallery International, Tokyo. Japan (1988)
Witkin Gallery, New York, NY (1994)
International Center of Photography. New York, NY (1995)
Michael H. Lord Gallery, Milwaukee, WI (1998)
Irving Galleries, Palm Beach, FL (1998)
Jan Kesner Gallery, Los Angeles. CA (1999)
Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York, NY (1999)

Young Photographers, Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY (1950)
The Family of Man, Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY (1955)
The World and Its People. The World’s Fair. New York, NY (1964)
Photography in the Fine Arts, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY (1965)
Photographic Crossroads: The Photo League, International Center of Photography (1978)
Manhattan Observed. New York Historical Society, New York, NY (1981)
Art of the Olmstead Landscape. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY (1981)
American Images, 1945- 1980. Barbican Art Gallery. London. England (1985)
Collecting New York: Recent Acquisitions. Museum of the City of New York (1985)
New York: The City and Its People. Working People’s Palace, Beijing, China (1986)
Cross Examinations. Mendocino Art Center, CA (1986)
Women Photographers Now, A.I.R. Gallery, New York, NY (1986)
Masters of Starlight, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, CA (1987)
Diamonds are Forever: Artists and Writers on Baseball. NY State Museum (1987)
Master Photographs from ‘Photography in the Fine Arts’ Exhibition 1959-1967,
International Center of Photography, New York, NY (1988)
The Human Element: Black and White Photography. California State University. Long Beach, CA (1989)
A History of Women Photographers, The New York Public Library, New York, NY (1997)
Defining Eye: Women Photographers of the 20th Century. St. Louis Art Museum (1997)
The American Century, Art & Culture. 1900-1950,Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY (1999)

Amon Carter Museum, Houston, TX
Center for Creative Photography, Tucson, AZ
International Center of Photography, New York, NY
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY
Milwaukee Museum of Art, Milwaukee, WI
Museum of the City of New York, New York, NY
Museum of Fine Art, Houston, TX
Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY
Museum of Art, Hamburg, Germany
New Orleans Museum of Art, New Orleans, LA
New York Historical Society, New York, NY
Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Santa Barbara, CA
St. Louis Art Museum, St, Louis, MO
Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, MA
Yale University Art Museum, New Haven, CT

A World Through My Window, Harper and Row, (1978)
A Photo Journal, A Studio Book, The Viking Press, (1981)
More Pictures From My Window, Rizzoli, (1983)
Ruth Orkin: A Retrospective, The Estate of Ruth Orkin, (1995)

3rd-Prize Winner, LIFE magazine’s first “Young Photographer’s Contest,” (1951)

Voted one of “Top Ten Woman Photographer’s in the US” by Professional Photographers of America Poll, (1959)

1st Annual Manhattan Cultural Award in Photography, (1980)

Certificate of Merit, The Municipal Art Society of NY, (1984)

School of Visual Arts, New York, NY, (1976-1978)
International Center of Photography, New York, NY, (1980)


Camera 35, “Frontier Woman,” by Sarah Webb Barrell, May 1975

Chicago Sun- Times, “Orkin -This Woman Has Eyes,” by David Elliot, December 16, 1979

Harper’s Bazaar, “Over 40 in the Arts,” by Sheila Feldman, September 1982

Los Angeles Times, “The Unexpected in the Everyday,” by David Pagel, March 12, 1999

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “A Gift for Knowing Just When to Click,” by James Auer, January 28, 1998

Popular Photography, “Ruth Orkin: Gravure Portfolio,” by Nancy Stevens, June 1977

The New York Times, “Candid or Contrived? The Making of a Classic,” by Shaun Considine, April 30, 1995

The New York Times, “Beyond that Single, Famous Picture,” by Charles Hagen, June 2, 1995

The Toronto Star; “Out of the Picture: Bringing the Art of Ruth Orkin Back to Focus,” by Susan Walker, June 3, 1995

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