Ruth Orkin: A Great Photographer – Finally Recognized | – Culture

Status: 03.09.2021 11:42 a.m

An illustrated book has been published by Hatje Cantz Verlag, presenting the fascinating work of Ruth Orkin, who lives in New York. The photographer took great pictures of life in New York in the first half of the 20th century.

by Silke Lahmann-Lammert

New York, 1952: Three children are squatting in a doorway playing cards. The two girls and their little friend are clearly having trouble holding their paper in their hands. Nevertheless, they act like savvy poker pros. Especially the little blonde in the middle is a real snot: she bluffs, teases and shamelessly looks into the cards of her fellow players.

Ruth Orkin’s dream job: cinematographer

Ruth Orkin recorded the black-and-white series in quick succession, giving her “Card Players” flip-book charm:

“My original interest was film. Maybe it’s because I wanted to tell stories with my photos. Even if the images weren’t moving.”
Ruth Orkins

As a teenager, the daughter of a silent film actress worked at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. However, Ruth Orkin had to give up her dream job as a camerawoman. At the end of the 1930s, the big Hollywood studios only trained men on the camera. Orkin instead studied photojournalism. In 1939, the 18-year-old drew attention to herself for the first time – with pictures of a bicycle tour that she had undertaken all by herself from Los Angeles to the World’s Fair in New York.

Countless photos of New York and its inhabitants

The east coast metropolis became her adopted home. From the 1940s until her death in 1985, Ruth Orkin captured the city and its residents in countless photos: lovers in Central Park, families dressed up at street parades, girls sunbathing on shipping containers on the Hudson River. As a freelance photo reporter, she sold her photos to newspapers and magazines. Not without complaining

” […] that some male photographers were paid more than me for the same job. The answer I heard was excuses or sentences like: ‘You don’t have to support a family either.'”
Ruth Orkins

The celebrities trusted Ruth Orkin

Only in one respect did she have it easier than her male colleagues:

“Strangers are less suspicious. With a smile, utmost innocence and kindness, I managed to get even people in front of the camera who were initially dismissive.”
Ruth Orkins

Whether Orkin focused on writers like TH Auden and Tennessee Williams or film directors like Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles, the celebrities appear like people next door in their portraits. The young Leonard Bernstein even let her photograph him shirtless.

Invented Stories

Orkin’s work quickly attracted attention among photography connoisseurs. Her black-and-white series “The Card Players” even made it into Edward Steichen’s legendary “Family of Man” exhibition at the New York Museum of Modern Art. The legend persists to this day that the pictures are snapshots of Orkins Daughter Mary and two of her playmates.

Photographer Wayne Miller suggested the Card Players series to Steichen after finding them in a shoe box in Orkin’s closet. But none of this is true, explains photo historian Kristen Gresh in the illustrated book “Ruth Orkin – A Photo Spirit”. But the made-up story shows how little people still trust women behind the camera: “The legend ignores and marginalizes Orkin’s professional life as a photojournalist.”

The new book does away with the myth of the talented amateur snapper and gives Ruth Orkin the respect she deserves: as one of the great American photographers of the 20th century.

A Photo Spirit

by Ruth Orkin

Page number:
240 pages
photo book
Additional info:
With texts in English by Ruth Orkin, her daughter Mary Engel and art historian Kristen Gresh
Hatje Cantz
Order number:

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NDR Culture | 05.09.2021 | 5:40 p.m

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