Pioneering photographer Ruth Orkin celebrated in Bonhams New York Photographs sale
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Pioneering photographer Ruth Orkin celebrated in Bonhams New York Photographs sale
American Girl (Jinx Allen) in Florence, Italy, 1951, gelatin silver print. Photo: Bonhams.

NEW YORK, NY.- In 1951, the young American photographer Ruth Orkin was sent from New York to Israel, on assignment for LIFE magazine. From there she travelled to Italy, where she met Ninalee Craig, known at the time as ‘Jinx Allen’, a fellow American who was also travelling alone. It was a photograph of Jinx, being starred at as she passed through a group of men, which was to become Orkin’s most recognizable image, ‘An American Girl in Italy’. Orkin included the photograph as part of a series, later published in Cosmopolitan magazine, entitled ‘Don’t be Afraid to Travel Alone’.

By this stage in her career Ruth Orkin had established herself as a pioneering female photographer in a world largely dominated by men. The Photographs of Ruth Orkin: A Centennial Celebration will take at Bonhams New York on February 2, 2021 and will offer a selection of works that showcase Orkin's impressive and versatile career, with prices ranging from $2,000 upwards.

Bonhams Head of Photographs, Laura Paterson, said: “The phrase "Don't Be Afraid to Travel Alone" was fitting for Ruth, who succeeded in what was then very much a man's world by breaking through a glass ceiling or two. She had an impressive and successful career as a photojournalist and portraitist and these photographs, taken at home at home and whilst on her many travels, are full of unusual warmth and intimacy. It is a real privilege to be able offer a selection of her captivating images in what will be the centenary of her birth.”

Born in Boston, Massachusetts, Ruth Orkin (1921-1985) grew up in Hollywood during its golden age – where her mother had a career as a silent film actress, and her father had a company Orkin Craft, that made collectible toy boats. She received her first camera when she was 10 years old, and at the age of 17 she cycled across the United States, from Los Angeles to New York City, to see the 1939 World’s Fair, taking pictures along the way.

Orkin briefly attended Los Angeles City College for photojournalism in 1940, before becoming the first messenger girl at MGM Studios in 1941, with the hope of become a cinematographer – however she left the position after discovering that the cinematographer’s union did not allow female members. In 1941, amid the Second World War, Orkin joined the Women's Auxiliary Army Corps in a second attempt to gain training as filmmaker – an opportunity which had been promoted in the recruitment adverts. However, she was discharged two years later, without any filmmaking experience.

In 1943 Orkin moved to New York. By night she worked as a nightclub photographer, and by day she shot baby pictures, all whilst saving for her first professional camera. The 1940s saw Orkin work for all the major magazines. She photographed many notable names, including some of the greatest musician of the era – Leonard Bernstein, Isaac Stern, Aaron Copland, Jascha Heifitz, Serge Koussevitzky and many others. She also went to Tanglewood during the summers to shoot rehearsals. In 1951, LIFE magazine sent her to Israel with the Israeli Philharmonic orchestra. From there she travelled alone across Europe, where she took many of her most famous images.

Upon her return to New York, she married fellow photographer and filmmaker Morris Engel. Together they produced two feature films – including “Little Fugitive” which was nominated for an Academy Award in 1953. The renowned French director, Francois Truffaut was quoted as saying that “The French New Wave would never have come into being if it hadn’t been for Little Fugitive”.

It was from the window of their New York apartment overlooking Central Park, that Orkin photographed marathons, parades, concerts, demonstrations, and the changing seasons. These photographs were the subject of the widely acclaimed book, “A World Through My Window”.

Ruth Orkin’s upcoming centennial in 2021 will see various exhibitions celebrating her long and distinguished career, including a major exhibition in NYC. A new retrospective book will also be published by Hatje Cantz in the Fall, 2021.

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