B & H Blog – Continuity of Purpose: A photographic Legacy from Ruth Orkin to Her Daughter

Posted by: on June 20, 2020

Continuity of Purpose: A Photographic Legacy from Ruth Orkin to Her Daughter

Aphotographer’s gift is to record his or her encounters with the world in pictures. If that photographer meets with success, pictures from their archive are published in magazines and books, exhibited in museums and galleries, licensed for commercial use, and sold as prints. With careful planning, these images have a life that endures well beyond that of the artist, through the continuing efforts of a legacy keeper.
Such is the relationship between the trailblazing work of 20th-Century photographer Ruth Orkin and the ongoing endeavors of her daughter, Mary Engel, who inherited Orkin’s archive in 1985.
“It’s a wonderful legacy, but a huge responsibility, and 35 years later that still rings true,” says Engel of her efforts. “My job, generally, is to keep the work out there, and that’s why I do what I do.”
Photographs © Ruth Orkin Photo Archive

Enduring Mother-Daughter Bond

Ruth and Mary at Cultural Awards, NYC. 1983

Engel was only 23 when her mother died after a long battle with cancer. Although she was closely involved in various aspects of Orkin’s photo career throughout her formative years, Engel says, “Obviously I was in school most of the time, but I was always helping her to an extent with the photos, or with slides, or with invoices. We lived in a two-bedroom apartment, and she had a lot of her work in her room. So, it was right there. It was hard not to be part of it.”
 One of Orkin’s signature photographs from 1948, showing a young boy jumping into the Hudson River from New York’s West Side waterfront.
In actuality, this was a two-photographer household, since Orkin was married to fellow photographer and filmmaker Morris Engel. Yet, when it came time to plan her estate, Orkin selected her daughter as executrix instead of her husband or son. “My father was definitely involved with her work,” Engel says, “but because he had his own photographs and films to represent, my mother felt that it would be a lot easier for me to handle her work. Somehow she felt I understood what she wanted, and would be able to properly represent her in the future.”


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The Woman in the Window in AIRMAIL 4/18/20

Posted by: on May 9, 2020





6:00 AM

APRIL 18 2020


My window shows the travelling clouds,
Leaves spent, new seasons, alter’d sky,
The making and the melting crowds:
The whole world passes; I stand by.

—Gerard Manley Hopkins

Mostly she waited. Waited “for the clouds to become the right shape,” for a shadow or a ray of light, sometimes rising before dawn to shoot a sunrise that “I must have sensed in my sleep.”

While the American photographer Ruth Orkin once traveled the world taking pictures, she found her greatest inspiration right outside her window—a vantage which has lately become all too familiar, sealed as we are in our homes for the foreseeable future.

Beginning in 1958, until her death, in 1985, Orkin took many of her most memorable pictures—the first New York City Marathon, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, ethereal vistas of Central Park at dawn, in all seasons—from her 15th-floor apartment at 65 Central Park West that Orkin shared with her husband, the photographer and filmmaker Morris Engel, and their two children. Mary Engel, Orkin’s daughter, recalled how neighbors would sometimes call to ask, “Is Ruth at her window? She has to see this … ” Because her view faced east, Orkin wrote that she could “never shoot an actual sunset, only sunrises. All my sunsets … are reflections of the sunset on buildings or on the clouds.”

If you know Orkin’s work at all, it’s probably for her most famous image, American Girl in Italy, in which a tall, slim young woman runs the gauntlet of catcalls on a street in Florence. Orkin was traveling alone and had met the photo’s subject, Ninalee Craig, in the lobby of their pensione; they decided to work together on a series of photographs that would show “what it’s really like to be a woman traveling alone.”

Ruth Orkin at the 1939 World’s Fair, after bicycling to New York from California.

Born in 1921 and raised in Hollywood (her mother was the silent-movie actress Mary Ruby), Orkin took her first pictures at age 10 with a 39-cent Univex. In 1939, aged 17, she biked and hitchhiked from California to New York, lured by the World’s Fair, and returned to the city to live in 1943. Soon her work was appearing in Life, Look, and Ladies’ Home Journal. Orkin’s sequence of street urchins playing cards was included in Edward Steichen’s landmark “Family of Man” exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, in 1955.

In the 1960s, Orkin found herself mostly at home, caring for her two young children. But she didn’t want to quit her profession, so she kept her camera and lenses handy on a dining table near the window. “My situation was ideal,” she later wrote, “although I don’t remember thinking of it that way at the time.” In A World Through My Window she recorded that a typical day might include:

“6:00 A.M.: mist/feedings

2:00 P.M.: view/playpen time

5:00 P.M.: dusk scene/baths

10:00 P.M.: night shot/baby asleep”

She once wryly introduced herself at an International Center of Photography lecture as “housewife, scenic photographer.”

Following a long battle with cancer, Orkin died in 1985. Engel recalled, “We didn’t let other people shoot out the window. Albert Maysles came up and shot a little bit of footage for Christo’s The Gates, and they used it for the movie Hair, but a movie was different. There was something about shooting stills that was really just saved for Ruth.”

The view outside her window—whether hushed in winter snow or brightened in the fresh green of spring—became Orkin’s final subject and seemed to somehow capture the vast heart of a city, imperiled but unbowed.

We are all Ruth Orkin now.


Sam Kashner is a contributing writer for AIR MAIL


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Ruth Orkin in group show at The National Gallery of Art

Posted by: on April 17, 2020

Photo copyright Ruth Orkin

THE CITY – opened February 20, 2020
American Art, 1900–1950: Prints, Drawings, and Photographs

Towering skyscrapers, massive steel bridges, and the hubbub of city streets captivated artists working in the first half of the twentieth century. Roaming the rapidly changing urban environment, they explored ways to convey the awe-inspiring scale and speed of the modern American city. For photographers, technological advances such as hand-held cameras and faster film and shutter speeds enabled new visual practices, from off-kilter, oblique views and bird’s and worm’s eye vantage points to the blurred effects of motion. Printmakers likewise experimented with cropped compositions and varying proportions to underscore verticality or broad expanse.

Drawn to the social strata of the metropolis, artists portrayed a wide variety of city-dwellers going about their daily lives. The dynamic geometry of the skyline and vitality of the city offered endless sources of inspiration, from the dramatically cast shadows of cavernous streets, the cadence of drying laundry suspended in rows, and the swirling forms of Coney Island’s amusement rides to the repeating curves of ornamental lampposts and the dazzling lights of the city at night.

During a period fueled by enormous urban growth and technological changes, riven by world wars, and rocked by new modes of thought, American artists explored many diverse means to express their changing experience and environment. Prints, drawings, and photographs were vital media through which artists pursued radical experiments in form, figuration, and abstraction. Reevaluating European traditions, they developed new ways of seeing the modern world around them.

Complementing the American modernist paintings and sculptures in the adjacent galleries, these rotating installations feature prints, drawings, and photographs by American artists working in the first half of the 20th century. By looking at pairs or groups of artists, or at broader themes such as abstract portraiture or the Machine Age, the installations spark conversations between established and lesser-known figures in American modernism and highlight the era’s full range and complexity.

Photo above:
Starlight Roof, Copyright 1948 Ruth Orkin

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I Love the Upper West Side – April 2020

Posted by: on April 17, 2020

Nice mention of Ruth’s window photographs which were the subjects of two books


Ruth Orkin shooting from the window, 1978 copyright Jerry LaPlante


In ordinary times, I would not be balancing myself on my window sill trying to get a clear cell shot of a Pepsi delivery truck. Today, in this period of crisis, the activity – waiting to capture the right moment as masked delivery people wheel carts into stores or carry boxes to the top of the con…
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PROOF: Photography in the Age of the Contact Sheet

Posted by: on April 17, 2020

PROOF: PHOTOGRAPHY IN THE AGE OF THE CONTACT SHEET exhibition opened on February 7, 2020 at the Cleveland Art Museum.

The exhibition includes Ruth Orkin’s American Girl in Italy proof sheet as an oversize wall graphic and in the exhibition, and Morris Engel’s sequence from “Little Fugitive”.

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Ruth Orkin in group show at the Tampa Museum of Art

Posted by: on April 17, 2020

Modern Women: Modern Vision
Works from the Bank of America Collection

On view February 20 through May 24, 2020

Since photography’s inception in the mid-nineteenth century, women have stood among its artistic and technological pioneers. Modern Women: Modern Vision features 100 works from the Bank of America Collection by leading artists of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. The exhibition is organized in six thematic sections: Modernist Innovators, Documentary Photography and the New Deal, Photo League, Modern Masters, Exploring the Environment, and The Global Contemporary Lens. Each section examines the photographers’ role in forging new directions and methods in photography, as well as how the medium has evolved with the advent of new digital and studio practices.  Artists featured in this exhibition include Berenice Abbott, Diane Arbus, Tina Barney, Bernd Becher and Hilla Becher, Margaret Bourke-White, Esther Bubley, Imogen Cunningham, Rineke Dijkstra, Candida Höfer, Barbara Kruger, Dorothea Lange, Nikki S. Lee, Helen Levitt, Sonia Handelman Meyer, DoDo Jin Ming, Ruth Orkin, Cindy Sherman, Carrie Mae Weems, and others.

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Marion Anderson exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery

Posted by: on April 17, 2020

Marion Anderson exhibition from June 28, 2019 – May 17, 2020 at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC.

“One Life: Marian Anderson” shifts the attention from Anderson’s historic 1939 performance on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to under explored moments in the contralto’s career. The exhibition examines the ways artists, concert promoters and others wielded her iconic likeness as a powerful symbol in the pursuit of civil rights. The paintings, photographs, personal effects, and archival materials provide a more nuanced understanding of how Anderson’s many roles, as singer, diplomat, and muse, helped shatter segregationist policies on and off the stage. Leslie Ureña, the National Portrait Gallery’s associate curator of photographs, is the curator of the exhibition.

Photo above included in exhibition
Marion Anderson with Leonard Bernstein, Lewisohn Stadium, New York City, 1947
Copyright Ruth Orkin

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Mary Engel in segment on WNYC – ALL OF IT 3/30/19

Posted by: on April 17, 2020


I was on the radio briefly today on WNYC’s “ALL OF IT” hosted by Allison Stewart, as they were doing a segment on women traveling alone. I called in to discuss Ruth’s travels and “American Girl in Italy”. I am on from 20:50 – 25:00 mins.

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Ruth Orkin photo of Jane Jacobs in GUTSY WOMEN new book by Hilary Rodham Clinton and Chelsea Clinton

Posted by: on October 17, 2019

Hillary Rodham Clinton and her daughter, Chelsea, share the stories of the gutsy women who have inspired them–women with the courage to stand up to the status quo, ask hard questions, and get the job done.She couldn’t have been more than seven or eight years old. “Go ahead, ask your question,” her father urged, nudging her forward. She smiled shyly and said, “You’re my hero. Who’s yours?”

Many people–especially girls–have asked us that same question over the years. It’s one of our favorite topics.

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Jackie Robinson’s 100th Birthday exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York

Posted by: on February 3, 2019

Happy Birthday Jackie Robinson on what would have been his 100th Birthday!
Photos copyright Ruth Orkin

Honoring the birth of a legend.

In 1947 Jackie Robinson made history when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers and became the first African American in Major League Baseball. In honor of the centennial of Robinson’s birth, In the Dugout with Jackie Robinson features some 30 images of Robinson and the Dodgers taken for Look magazine. Along with these stunning black-and-white images from the Museum’s collection, many never before seen, the exhibition features memorabilia and rare footage of the Robinson family, as well as the published magazines, which provide a window into the media’s portrayal of this groundbreaking figure through the lens of the day’s popular picture press.

This exhibition is a co-presentation of the Museum of the City of New York and the Jackie Robinson Foundation.

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