RUTH ORKIN IN 1947; THE WASHINGTON MONUMENT PHOTOGRAPHED BY ORKIN IN 1939
In 1939, a 17-year old girl living in California decided to embark on a monumental bike trip across the country. The World’s Fair in New York City was her destination. That girl was award winning photojournalist and filmmaker Ruth Orkin (1921-1985).
Orkin grew up in Hollywood in the 1920s and 1930s, and at the age of 10, received her first camera, a 39¢ Univex. She began by photographing her friends and teachers at school. Obsessed with traveling after three cross country train trips with her family, she took a job as a teenager at a travel agency in 1937. When a pamphlet for American Youth Hostels arrived in the mail one day at work, offering cheap lodging and cooking facilities for travelers journeying by foot or bicycle, the call for adventure was too great to resist.
PHOTOGRAPHS TAKEN BY ORKIN AND PAGE FROM THE SCRAPBOOK SHE MADE DOCUMENTING THE 1939 BIKE TRIP. ALL CAPTIONS HANDWRITTEN BY ORKIN
At 16, Orkin took her first Youth Hostel trip to San Francisco, and the following year somehow convinced her parents to let her bicycle across the country. Multiple newspapers carried the story of this 17-year old on a cross country tour of U.S. Youth Hostels. While she had actually hitchhiked from LA to Chicago, and then Chicago to New York – equally adventurous and kind of crazy — Orkin later wrote in her book, A Photo Journal, published in 1981, “The bicycling was done while I was sightseeing in each city: Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, DC, and Boston. I also biked the smaller distances between the four eastern cities and while hosteling through four New England states. All in all I biked a total of 2000 miles during those four months!”
The photographs taken on that trip are quite extraordinary and sophisticated for such a young girl, as is the scrapbook she diligently created documenting the trip. That she made this journey unscathed is equally impressive. Her intrepid spirit would bring her back to New York City in 1943 where she began working as a nightclub photographer. She later became a highly sought-after freelance photographer, traveling around the world and contributing to Life, Look, Ladies’ Home Journal and other magazines. Orkin’s candid photographs of actors and directors include Woody Allen, Lauren Bacall, Humphrey Bogart, Doris Day, Kirk Douglas, Lana Turner, Spencer Tracy, Orson Welles, Marlon Brando, among others, in addition to many of the greatest musicians, such as Leonard Bernstein, Isaac Stern, Aaron Copland, Jascha Heifitz, and Serge Koussevitzky
Orkin was married to photographer and filmmaker Morris Engel. Together they produced two feature films, including the classic “Little Fugitive” which was nominated for an Academy Award in 1953. From their apartment overlooking Central Park, Orkin photographed the life of New York City outside her window. These photographs were the subject of two widely acclaimed books, A World Through My Window and More Pictures From My Window. One of those images of the first New York City Marathon is now on display at The Museum of the City of New York in “The New York City Marathon:The Great Race.”
Orkin is perhaps best known for her photograph, American Girl in Italy, taken in 1951. The subject was Ninalee Craig, an art student and fellow American living in Florence, and conceived when Orkin noticed the men ogling Craig as she walked down the street. The photograph was part of a series originally titled “Don’t Be Afraid to Travel Alone” about what women encountered traveling alone in Europe after the war. It seems no coincidence that fearlessness shown on that bike adventure in 1939, would be the inspiration for one of her greatest images.
“AMERICAN GIRL IN ITALY”, 1951, Copyright 1952, 1980 Ruth Orkin
All photographs special permission from the Ruth Orkin Photo Archive. All photographs copyright Ruth Orkin.