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Photographer Ruth Orkin was born to a silent film actress in Brooklyn on this date in 1921. She grew up in Hollywood, studied photojournalism at the Los Angeles City College, and served in the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps during World War II. Denied admission to the Cinematographer’s Union because she was a woman, Orkin went to New York and became active within the circles of the leftwing Photo League, where she met her husband, Morris Engel. She and Engel worked on several independent feature films, including The Little Fugitive, about a wandering child in Coney Island, which Orkin edited, co-directed, and co-wrote, receiving an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay. Her most famous photograph, which has appeared on the walls of both pizza parlors and art galleries around the world, is “An American Girl in Italy, 1951,” a moment of street harassment/cat-calling by more than a dozen men in Florence, which Orkin staged with her six-foot model Ninalee Craig (who insisted late in life that “It’s not a symbol of harassment. It’s a symbol of a woman having an absolutely wonderful time!”). Orkin also made iconic photographs of people in New York and in Israel, and was included in the 1955 Family of Man exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art. She taught photography at the School of Visual Arts and the International Center of Photography before dying of cancer in Manhattan at age 63. To see a lovely excerpt from another Orkin/Engel film, Goodnight Peggy, look below.
“They think I’m this housewife that photographs out her window, but they don’t know that I have a whole body of work.” —Ruth Orkin