Ruth Orkin, Couple in MG, Florence, 1951
Of course there's no one standard of the "excellent" in photography. In aesthetic appreciation there is general rough agreement but also a wide range of opinion. And no sort of unanimity. We all like what we like. I'm reminded of the late comedian Mitch Hedberg talking about the heavy metal band he and his friends had when they were teenagers: "People either loved us or they hated us. Or they thought we were OK."
I laughed as soon as I saw this. In the words of the "Stefon" character on SNL, "It has everything":
- It's classic 35mm B&W photography, which I love above all the other wonderful forms and formats of photography;
- I'm mildly fascinated with the style of the period lately becoming known as "Midcentury Modern";
- I have a thing for roadsters, even though, tragically, I don't own one...and an MG with a fold-down windscreen* just pushes that button;
- That wonderful hand gesture (gesture in photography, understood better by an earlier generation of critics, is underappreciated these days); and, let's face it,
- ...Funny hats and/or surreal eyewear never hurts!
This print—sorry, the print of this JPEG—is currently being auctioned by Artnet Auctions. The opening bid is $3,600, and it has an estimate of $4,000–$6,000. It's an estate print, "printed later" and signed not by the photographer but by her daughter, the "estate executrix."
Ruth Orkin took one extremely famous photograph of a type not currently in fashion that has graced countless frame-shop posters. It was called "An American Girl in Italy" and it was taken the same year this was. Contrary to rumor (and appearances) it was not staged. The photographer was following the subject around photographing her for an editorial feature about women traveling alone in Europe.
I got to know Ruth's work from a book called A Photo Journal that was in the library at my art school (I knew every single book in that library). She had a lively career that moved between photojournalism, editorial illustration, and Hollywood portraits, and spanned still photography, filmmaking, and teaching (she taught at the influential School of Visual Arts in New York City in the late 1970s). I've always had a bit of a soft spot for her work—there's usually humor, beauty and a certain light-heartedness to be found in it.
The funny goggles and hats are a bonus.
*Mark Sampson says it's an MG TD which was a current model in 1951 and available in both left-hand and right-hand drive.
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(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Aashish: "I absolutely love the first picture. I like everything about it. To me it simply says 'joy' or 'happiness' or—insert your preferred synonym—. Absolutely delightful!"
David Boyce: "I have a thing for roadsters as well. And also Ruth Orkin's work. I was introduced to her work sometime in the late '70s and it was a slow burn. I initially dismissed it as 'not serious enough.' I was an angsty young punk and thought grit was everything. But her work kept reappearing, and people who I respected kept mentioning her. It took a while for me to see the subtle use of humour often conveyed other subtexts. She is one of the people who I considered for my From the Shoulders of Giants series a while back. I need to go and look at her work again. Thanks for the memory jolt."
Ernie Van Veen: "I've always been torn between believing "An American Girl in Italy" was staged or spontaneous. The stares and gestures of the men made it seem staged, too outrageous; however, the look on the woman's face, and her body language, made it seem very real. Perhaps a better title would have been 'Lamb Among the Wolves.'"
hugh crawford: "An MG like that was our family car until my little sister and I grew to be larger than that suitcase in the photo.
"Ruth Orkin and her husband Morris Engel also pretty much invented modern cinema with their movie 'Little Fugitive,' at least according to François Truffaut who credited them with inspiring the French New Wave as well as John Cassavetes and Martin Scorsese. Morris Engel build his own 35mm handheld hidden cine camera with Charlie Woodruff (shout out to photographers who build their own cameras, yay!) that was later borrowed by Stanley Kubrick and Jean-Luc Godard. I met Mary Engel, the executrix of which you speak, when my wife and I started an outdoor film screening series in Brooklyn in 2006 and I picked 'Little Fugitive' as the first film. It's one of my favorite films of all time, and is as Brooklyn as you can get (little boy runs away to Coney Island). Mary introduced the film that her parents made and it was a wonderful evening and it turned out that she lived a few blocks away. I love Ruth Orkin's work. That 'American Girl in Italy'? Well you have to see this. Mary Engel is great, and worked on a book about 'Little Fugitive.'"
John W.: "Cool image. Some years ago I had the extraordinary pleasure of taking a workshop with Jay Maisel, who talked at some length about 'gesture' in photography...even inanimate objects can have gestural value. I've never forgotten that and years later it keeps turning up in my images.
"A few years ago I started a print group called Photo Friday (we meet the last Friday of the month). Initially most of the members strove to eliminate people from their images. Over the years that has steadily changed; now they strive to incorporate not just people but gesture...animate and inanimate."
Ken Tanaka: "Excellent choice, Mike! Some years back the Art Institute had a show of mid-century New York street documentary work which naturally included Morris Engel and his wife, Ruth Orkin. That was my first introduction to Orkin and I've been a fan ever since. I had the opportunity to meet and become acquainted with Mary Engel (daughter), a lovely person who has been devoted to maintaining her parents' legacies. Speaking of which, Mary has a wonderful archive site of Ruth's work. Also, I recently came across a site that features the contact sheet from Orkin's most famous 'American Girl in Italy' image, as well as a great current-day snap of its subject, 'Jinx.'"
Dan Gordon: "Prompted by this article, I browsed through other photos in the American Girl series. I contemplated 'Jinx at Cafe,' noting in art-student-style how her eyes draw the viewer in, then direct it to the young man across, whose sloping shoulder and arm lead to the Coke bottle on the table, which in turn points us back to her hand and then her eyes. After a few cycles of this I realized my 2017 brain was interpreting the object in her hand as a smartphone. After all, doesn't everybody seated at an outdoor cafe brandish a smartphone? Is there a lesson here about how we see pictures with our own contemporary attitudes and expectations? I wish I could, for a moment, grasp what this photo would have meant to a viewer in 1951."