Embodying the Optimism that Defined the Modern Mid-20th Century

Born in 1921 in Boston, Ruth Orkin was an American photographer best known for her black and white images capturing the charm and intrigue of daily life. Her photographs embodied a feeling of optimism that defined the modern mid-century 20th century. The Hollywood style glamour seen in her pictures came as no surprise as Orkin herself grew up in the golden days of 20s and 30s. She was the only child of Mary Ruby, a silent film actress, and Samuel Orkin, a toy manufacturer.

The Early Years

Ruth Orkin received her first camera at the age of 10, and began photographing friends and teachers at school. Moving to New York in 1943, she worked as a club photographer by night and shot baby pictures by day to support herself. Her work started to be featured in major magazines of the period, including LIFE, Look, and Horizon, but it was the trip she took to the Tanglewood Music Festival in the summer of 1946 where she truly honed skills in portraiture. Orkin’s first major photo essay, titled ‘Jimmy, the Storyteller’ was published in Look in 1946. She sent the series to Edward Steichen at the Museum of Modern Arts New York the following year, who included her in every subsequent photography show at the museum until his retirement. Both the motion picture and music industries were her formative influences that would later shape the narrative as well as her interest throughout her rich career.

Celebrating Life and Capturing Small Moments

During her early days in New York, Ruth Orkin took candid photographs of her neighborhood, presenting fragments of everyday life and moments of romance. What differentiated Orkin’s work, apart from its candor and sensuality, was the pictorial quality of her images. A certain warmth and lightheartedness surrounds her pictures, celebrating life and capturing small moments at their fullest. There is seldom any posing, as Orkin captures her subjects in their most natural, exploring the charm and motion in life.  According to Miss Rosen, A New York-based writer,

“She always edited with her eye. She said she used to wait for her finger to freeze before she would click the shutter. Ruth didn’t just let a moment go by. Everything in her life was seizing the moment.”

‘Don’t Be Afraid to Travel Alone’

Ruth Orkin’s breakthrough, however, came in 1951. LIFE magazine had just sent Orkin to Israel for an assignment, and after completion, she traveled across Italy. When in Florence, she met the 23 year old Jinx Allen (Ninalee Craig), a painter and fellow American who would become Orkin’s model for the series originally titled ‘Don’t Be Afraid to Travel Alone’ – a photo essay based on their joint experience as women traveling solo throughout post-war Europe. The photo essay was published a year later in Cosmopolitan Magazine, and included tips for the female traveler. Orkin’s daughter, Mary Engel, in a 1995 catalogue essay explains how the photo series came about;

“My mother had an idea. Come on, she said, ‘let’s go out and shoot pictures of what it’s really like. In the morning, while the Italian women were inside preparing lunch, Jinx gawked at streets, asked military officials for directions, fumbled with lire and flirted in cafes while my mother photographed her.”

Ruth Orkin, An American Girl in Italy, Florence
Ruth Orkin, An American Girl in Italy, Florence, 1951, Silver Gelatin Photograph

An American Girl in Italy

It was during this shoot that Orkin took what would become not only her most notable photograph, but one of the iconic images of 20th century photography. The photograph, titled ‘American Girl In Italy’ shows Jinx being stared at as she passes through a group of men on the street in Florence. She wears a long black dress, and looks visibly uncomfortable while clutching her sketchbook and covering herself with her shawl. Jinx is placed at the very center of the frame with 15 men surrounding her on the street, which creates further tension and is clearly an outlet of Orkin’s filmic eye. On directing the viewer’s eye, Orking said;

“Being a photographer is making people look at what I want them to look at.”

And she does exactly that. The image could to be a still from a Hollywood movie. The photograph almost comes to life and the viewer can imagine Jinx walking down the street and hear a dramatic melody in the background.

Renewed Interest

American Girl in Italy depicts a state of female flanerie, while also highlighting the theme of unwelcome attention of men. There was a recently renewed interest in the image due to the increased global attention for the #metoo movement. Mary Engel, as director of the Ruth Orkin Photo Archives, further comments saying;

“I get a lot of requests from academics and professors who want to get into the background of it, but I tried not to editorialize it too much. The whole point is for the viewer to interpret it for themselves.”

A Celebration of Fearlessness, Independence and Vitality

Jinx’s experience, on the other hand, was far from uncomfortable. In an article for The Guardian, she explains the encounter saying;

“My expression is not one of distress, that was just how I stalked around the city. I saw myself as Beatrice of Dante’s Divine Comedy. You had to walk with complete assurance and maintain a dignity at all times. The last thing you would do would be to look them in the eye and smile. I did not want to encourage them. This image has been interpreted in a sinister way but it was quite the opposite. They were having fun and so was I.”

On the contrary, the photograph speaks of a celebration of fearlessness, independence and vitality. Orkin’s series of Jinx in Florence challenges gender roles, with one woman in front of the camera and another behind, a progressive notion for the era and dynamics when the photograph was taken.

The Top 10 Women Photographers in the US

Having been named one of The Top 10 Women Photographers in the US, along with Dorothea Lange by the Professional Photographers of America in 1959, the life and legacy of Ruth Orkin have been full of major recognitions. Her work is featured in the collections of MOMA and the International Centre of Photography, as well has having been exhibited extensively in the US and internationally. A pioneer of street photography with intimacy and grace, Orkin’s work continues to inspire and influence image making today. She passed away in New York in 1985.