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Toronto, Ontario, Canada
"To take a photograph is to align the head, the eye and the heart. It's a way of life." ~ Henri Cartier-Bresson

Friday, August 10, 2012

Photographer Profile ~ Ruth Orkin

Ruth Orkin (1921 – 1985) was an award-winning photojournalist and filmmaker. 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  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.

*click on image for a larger view*
American Girl in Italy 1951

This iconic photo was the result of a superb collaboration between two American young women each traveling solo across war torn Europe in 1951. Ruth Orkin and Jinx Allen serendipitously ran into each other in a cheap hostel overlooking the Arno in Florence, and in her widely-acclaimed photoessay, "Don’t be Afraid to Travel Alone" , Orkin photographed Jinx Allen shopping in the markets, crossing traffic, riding a carriage and flirting at a cafe.

But the most famous was the above photo; it was taken at 10:30 a.m., the street was packed with loitering men because work was scarce and unemployment high in post-war Italy. While the contact sheet began at its eighth frame, they show that Orkin indeed took only two versions of her famous photo. Some may have thought it was staged as the image is so perfect in it's composition and timing ( as Bresson said the "decisive moment") but it was just a perfect moment caught by a master photographer. You can also see from the contact sheets that after those two frames, the man on the Vespa took Jinx Allen for a spin. You can purchase a print here

 Marlon Brando in dressing room on set of "Julius Caesar," MGM , 1952, by Ruth Orkin

To be a photojournalist takes experience, skill,
 endurance, energy, salesmanship, organization, 
wheedling, climbing, gatecrashing, etc. 
– plus an eye
 and patience.
~ Ruth Orkin,

"Being a photographer is making people 
look at what I
 want them to look at."
~ Ruth Orkin
Albert Einstein havin' a laugh


Ninalee Craig, 83, is the woman in Ruth Orkin's 1951 photograph "American Girl in Italy." This photo taken on Aug. 12 shows Craig standing next to Orkin's iconic image and wearing the same orange shawl she wore in the photo nearly 60 years ago. She now resides in Toronto! my hometown.  She said of the image this is a symbol of a woman having an absolutely wonderful time.  It’s not a symbol of harassment.”

When Orkin was 17 she wanted to see the 1939 World’s Fair that was in New York City. She somehow managed to convince her parents to allow her to bicycle across the country. She hitch-hiked for the long distances, but ended up biking over 2000 miles through the big cities, and took many memorable photos everywhere she went.
Ruth Orkin in London

Portait of Ruth Orkin with her Nikon 
Portait of Ruth Orkin

Ruth Orkin Co-Directed LITTLE FUGITIVE
It was the WINNER of Silver Lion, 1953 -Venice Film Festival
and was an Academy Award™ Nominee, Best Motion Picture Story


  1. What wonderful, wonderful photographs. Thank you for introducing me to Ruth Orkin.

  2. Spectacular... seen in Venice!