A new book revisits Ruth Orkin’s theatrical photographs

Known for her captivating photographs of city scenes and children at play, the late photographer is the centre of a book that illuminates the intersections between her different practices and influences

Thames & Hudson has released a new book on the late American photographer, photojournalist, and filmmaker Ruth Orkin as part of its Photofile series. Comprising a series of images that span her entire career, the book serves as “the perfect primer” on her work, introducing readers to her enduring style and subject matter.

Born in Boston in 1921, Orkin was the daughter of an actress and a craftsman. With her mother’s work in Hollywood meaning that she spent much of her childhood on film sets in the heart of American cinema, she quickly developed a strong eye for aesthetics and framing. As such, for many of her formative years she dreamed of becoming a filmmaker, though this discipline would elude her until much later in life.

Top: Coca-Cola, New York, 1950; Above: Girls twirling, New York, from the series From Above, 1948; All images © Ruth Orkin Photo Archive and Actes Sud, 2023

However, at age ten, she was given her first camera. Fascinated by the medium of photography, she began taking photos of her classmates and teachers, honing the skills that would later help her to become an established practitioner.

By 17, she was already cycling across the US, from Los Angeles to New York, documenting her journey and the many places and people she encountered along the way. The resulting body of work is titled Bicycle Trip and contains many parallels with the scrapbooks her mother kept during the making of her films.

From the series Jimmy Tells a Story, West Village, New York, 1947
Bicycle on a hill in San Francisco, from the series Bicycle Trip, 1939

Writing in the book’s foreword, author Anne Morin notes: “This fascination with the power of cinema remained a constant presence throughout Orkin’s work, and it was this sense of having missed the opportunity to pursue her vocation that led her to invent an entirely new language that stood at the crossroads between photography and cinema.”

A few years later, Orkin settled permanently in New York, where she would remain for the rest of her life. It was here, as she slowly grew more confident in her use of the medium, that she became a recognisable name, working for high-profile clients such as the New York Times, Life, and Look. For the next ten years, until the point at which she finally got her shot at filmmaking in 1952, Orkin built up an enviable body of work.

Albert Einstein at Princeton luncheon, New Jersey, 1955

She shot iconic figures like composer Leonard Bernstein, physicist Albert Einstein, and actors and directors such as Marlon Brando, Woody Allen, Doris Day, Spencer Tracey, and Orson Welles. She also received critical acclaim for series including American Girl in Italy, which was shot in Florence and features art student Ninalee Craig.

This series went on to become her most well-known project, cementing her position as one of the country’s most influential women photographers (she was voted in the top ten by Professional Photographers of America in 1959).

“Orkin’s work earned her a place in the history of photography, in its gaps and the places where it intersects with other disciplines,” Morin writes.

American Girl in Italy, Florence, from the series American Girl in Italy, 1951

In the book, shots from throughout this period and beyond reveal the influence that Orkin’s early years spent on film sets had on her photographic practice. From her photojournalism work to her celebrity portraits, a sense of the cinematic pervades each frame, elevating her subjects and highlighting their humanity and charisma.

Discussing her practice, Orkin once explained: “When I was young I was constantly saying, ‘look at this – look at that’. I think that taking pictures must be my way of asking people to ‘look at this – look at that’. If my photographs make the viewer feel what I did when I first took them … then I’ve accomplished my purpose.”


Ruth Orkin (Photofile) by Anne Morin is published by Thames & Hudson; thamesandhudson.com