Ruth Orkin's 'A Photo Spirit' at Fotografiska spotlights her legacy

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Monday, October 4, 2021
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A new museum show at Fotografiska in Manhattan and a book titled, "A Photo Spirit," spotlights the pioneering efforts of photographer Ruth Orkin.

MANHATTAN (WABC) -- A new museum show at Fotografiska in Manhattan and a book titled, "A Photo Spirit," spotlights the pioneering efforts of photographer Ruth Orkin.

She came to New York City from the West Coast as a teenager and captured priceless images of life here in the 20th century.

Orkin's work has been so meaningful to me for so long I've often wondered why she is not better known. Perhaps, it's because so many years have passed since her premature death due to cancer in 1985.

Now, her daughter Mary Engel is making the centennial of her mother's birth to draw new attention to this artist's important legacy.

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Her photographs celebrate our city in all of its diversity. Taken together, they form a universal portrait that has stood the test of time because Orkin was ahead of her time.

"She certainly was a feminist," Engel said. "She certainly was obviously a tremendous pioneer."

As the director of her mother's archive, Engel has what she calls a "huge responsibility" to help mount shows like the one now at Fotografiska in Manhattan.

We're really highlighting an unsung hero here," Director of Exhibitions Amanda Hajjar said. "Ruth deserves to have a beautiful solo exhibition in New York, and that's something that she hasn't had yet."

Orkin's first camera that she received at the age of 10 is on display alongside the one she used to take pictures with when she traveled across the country on a bike at the age of 17. She turned pro a few years later.

"She was just interested in people, and I think people responded to that," Engel said. "They let her in."

As the director of the Orkin Archive, Engel notes the new relevance in the "Me Too" era of her mother's classic image titled "American Girl in Italy," which shows men reacting to Orkin's friend strolling the streets of Florence in 1953.

However, it is the images of New York City that lie at the heart of the "Expressions of Life" show at Fotografiska.

"It's about the ordinary ballet that we all live and dance and perform every day," curator María Sprowls Cervantes said. "Not every photographer can see that."

And she saw so much from a single vantage point. Orkin's "Pictures From My Window" fill two books worth of photographs from a window overlooking Central Park on the Upper West Side.

The images were born out of necessity after the birth of the photographer's two children limited her ability to roam.

"She had no choice," Engel said. "I think that she was still always a photographer, even though she desperately wanted to be a mother...and it just evolved. It was, how could she not take pictures?"

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The curator of the show calls her window pictures, "The ultimate expressions of life."

One of them, titled simply, "All Is Right With The World," has offered me much comfort-even when all is not right.

For more information on the exhibit and on Orkin, visit and


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