Candor and Candids: An Interview with Ruth Orkin
By Janis Bultman
Published in Darkroom Photography, Oct 1982 and in Legacies: Interviews with Masters of Photography from Darkroom Photography Magazine, 2018.
Ruth Orkin will tell you that a successful photojournalist is alternately a photographer and a salesperson. Self-taught in both occupations, Orkin’s methods haven’t always been textbook. Even so, shortly after she decided to become a photojournalist in the mid-Forties, her candid photographs of musicians, celebrities, and ordinary people were appearing in all the major picture magazines and in many of Steichen’s Museum of Modern Art exhibitions, including “The Family of Man.”
But photography wasn’t Orkin’s first career choice. A child of Hollywood, she’d always wanted to be a filmmaker, and when she was honored as one of the Top Ten Women Photographers in the U.S. in 1959, she’d already thrown over photojournalism for her first love. In 1953, she co-wrote and co-directed the award-winning Little Fugitive. Then she retired to raise a family, although the recent publication of A World Through My Window and A Photo Journal shows her camera has never been far away.
Now, Orkin is devoting her full attention to photography again, and in addition to teaching and exhibiting, she has eight more book projects in various stages of completion. In her Manhattan apartment high above Central Park, she talked, with characteristic candor, about her life and times.
JB: Since you’re the daughter of a silent-film actress, and you grew up near Hollywood, wasn’t it almost inevitable that the local preoccupation—movies—would affect your choice of career?
RO: Yes, I always wanted to make films. But I discovered you had to be a member of the Cinematographer’s Union to run a camera, and the union didn’t allow women members.
JB: Do you think you would have become a still photographer anyway if you’d been allowed in the union?
RO: No. I’m sure my whole life would have been different. Recently, my editor at Viking pointed out something I never consciously realized. She said that I have more photo sequences than any other photographer she knows. She attributed this to my interest in the movies. After I made Little Fugitive with my husband, Morris Engel, in 1953, I almost lost interest in still photography completely.
JB: Why was that?
RO: You’ve got plenty of power with still photographs, especially if you get published in the magazines with circulations in the millions. But with a movie, you can actually hear your power in the audience’s reaction. You know, I used to debate with myself when I had a photograph I knew would sell. I’d say to myself, “This Week has a circulation of twelve million and pays $300 a page. Life has a circulation of nine million and pays $150 a page. Should I sell it to Life for prestige or This Week for coverage?” It depended on what I was selling. If I were trying to sell images of Israel, for example, I’d give them to This Week. It was often very hard to make a choice, especially if I needed the money.
JB: Even though you say you wouldn’t have become a photographer if the Cinematographer’s Union had been open to you, you seem to have always been fascinated with photography. You were taking photographs when you were ten and developing them at twelve.
RO: I not only developed them, but later on I mixed chemicals from scratch. I didn’t have any money—we were on relief—so I did it at high school where they had all the chemicals.
JB: How did you learn technique? Did you emulate established photographers?
RO: Well, I couldn’t really, because most people were using Rolleis, and the Rollei viewfinder drove me crazy. But when I was eighteen and still in Los Angeles, I spent a lot of time looking through camera annuals in the Los Angeles Library. The Leica annuals, as opposed to the U.S. Camera annuals, had more of the kinds of pictures I liked because they were all 35mm. I could see that you could do things with a 35mm camera that you couldn’t with other cameras. Those were the pictures I wanted to take—pictures that were natural, candid, real, human, humorous—where people weren’t aware of the camera. That’s when I first saw my husband’s pictures—in U.S. Camera. He was able, for some unknown reason, to do the same thing with a Rollei. I remembered his name. In fact, I memorized it. On the streetcar coming home, I kept saying “Morris Engel” because it was a lot easier than “Alfred Eisenstaedt.” Now isn’t that prophetic?
JB: Did you ever take any photography classes?
RO: Every time I tried to take a course, I’d leave after about three classes. It just wasn’t relevant. Nobody taught photojournalism in those days, and I knew my future was with a 35mm camera. I was just waiting until I could get one.
JB: So basically, you taught yourself by trial and error?
RO: Yes. I remember the first time Morris came into my darkroom—which was really my bathroom—my reels were just sitting in the developer. I used to leave them in there a long time. He said, “What are you doing? You’re not supposed to leave the reels in the developer overnight!” And that’s how I learned—a little bit here, a little bit there. I also used to learn just by talking to men in photo stores, because if you were a serious photographer, and you were female and attractive, you could get all kinds of free advice. There weren’t many female photographers in those days. When I joined the ASMP in 1947, there were thirty women out of three hundred members.
JB: How did you get started as a professional photographer?
RO: Well, I worked for a while as a nightclub photographer. Then I went from door to door, photographing babies. On my own, I went up to the Tanglewood Music Festival in 1946 to photograph the musicians. I wrote ahead to tell them I was coming and got a letter back telling me not to bother. I went anyway. I took my cello and pretended I was a music student. I made enough money with my Tanglewood photographs to buy a 35mm camera.
JB: Up to that time, did you ever doubt your choice of a career?
RO: There’s a natural kind of arrogance that goes with being twenty-two. During that time, I worked as an assistant for someone who was photographing Lenny Bernstein, and I said to myself, “Someday he’s going to be posing for me!” I was so sure of myself, so cocky. My friends were always telling me to shut up, or think before I spoke. But you’ve got to be able to convince people you’re better than someone else if you want to succeed. You’ve got to have a lot of ego. Every artist does. Back then, though, I didn’t think of it as ego. I knew I saw certain things, and I wanted to take pictures of them, and I just wanted everybody else to see what I saw. I would get very enthusiastic about certain subjects, and I’d be selling what interested me. Once, up at Look, I said to my editor, “Do you know who the greatest, the most important chorale conductor in the world is? It’s Bob Shaw, and here are the pictures.” He ran them. The most important thing is the picture, of course. They have to be able to sell themselves. But I know my enthusiasm for the photos helped sell them. I never had an agent.
JB: Did you always pick a subject that interested you, photograph it, and then sell the photographs?
RO: Half and half. I did work on assignment. I photographed a lot of “How America Lives” stories for Ladies Home Journal. They’d send me to live with and photograph a typical American family for two weeks. The writer usually went beforehand, so there wouldn’t be too many strangers around. Then I’d go and just shoot pictures.
But other times, I’d go looking for possibilities. I’ll tell you how it worked. When I went to Israel on the first El Al press junket, for example, I decided to do a story on one of their pilots. I had fifteen pilots to pick from, but only three of them were Jewish, and naturally El Al wanted me to do a Jewish pilot. I was sitting in the Lydda airport, and I saw this guy—a pilot—walk in who was a mixture of Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas. He was so relaxed and so attractive. To be relaxed is one of the most important requirements of a really great subject. I said to myself, “Please God, let him be Jewish.” And he was!
One of the reasons I decided to do that story was because food supplies in Israel then were very limited—we only had four or five staples to choose from every day—and I knew pilots had great food in their refrigerators. So I got a great photo story at the same time that I got to eat strawberries from Africa and all kinds of other delicacies. The story ran five pages in Cosmopolitan.
JB: Your photograph of Einstein is one of your most popular. Was that on assignment?
RO: Yes, that was lovely. I was hired to photograph him at a luncheon, shaking hands with each of one hundred men who had donated money to Albert Einstein University. I sat and had lunch with him. Meanwhile, outside there was a big press conference, and all the male news photographers wanted to know why I was inside at the luncheon, and they weren’t. One of the main reasons I got the job was because just about everyone worked with flash then, and they wanted someone who could work without flash. To get enough light, I got the kitchen staff to get up on ladders and put aluminum foil all over the ceiling. It was a tremendous job because the ceiling was arched. Then I bounced my floodlight off the foil. I just barely made it. I took the pictures with Plus-X at f/2 and 1/60.
JB: One of the hallmarks of an Orkin photograph is the candidness of the subject. I was therefore very surprised to learn that many of your photographs are actually staged—for example, “American Girl in Italy.” Publisher’s Weekly described it as “a candid, incisive, storytelling photo that, in its genre, has never been topped.” Isn’t there something a little bit…devious…about staging photojournalism to appear candid?
RO: I don’t like that word. The ultimate result is what counts, and if it’s a statement that’s honest and true, what the heck difference does it make? What’s devious about that? I never said that shot was candid. The girl in the photo and I were running around looking for pictures to depict the frustrations of traveling alone, as opposed to what the glamorous travel posters and brochures were saying it was supposedly like. We came across all those fellows spread out like that. I didn’t put them there. All I did was tell the guy on the motorcycle, who spoke English, to tell the others not to look at the camera. I only made two exposures because, if you’ll notice, I’m in the middle of the intersection, and I didn’t want to get hit.
JB: What are the most important elements of a good photograph?
RO: Number one, it should stop you. Number two, it should be interesting. I see too many photographs these days that just aren’t interesting. There’s nothing happening. There’s a bench, or a piece of cloud, or litter someplace. Who needs that in this day and age? To me, the important thing isn’t that a photograph should be simply beautiful. Photographs should have messages. Artists shouldn’t spend their time making pictures out of nonsense when we’ve got this nuclear thing hanging over our heads.
I think Paul Schutzer did the best photo story I’ve ever seen. It was on Vietnam, and Life printed it in 1966. He photographer under fire, yet every picture could have been hung on a gallery wall. My son was six years old when he saw the photographs. There was one where a group of women were cowering because bombs were falling. He said, “Why don’t they take the women and children out of Vietnam? If the men want to fight, why are the women and children around?” Isn’t that sensible?
JB: You write in A Photo Journal that because you’re a woman, you’ve been able to get responses from your male subjects that a male photographer wouldn’t have gotten. In that sense, being a woman was an asset, but did it ever hold you back in any way?
RO: It sure did! I remember being sent out to shoot Dmitri Shostakovich when he first came here after the war. There was a big press conference, and I was the only woman there. I’ll tell you, a woman is no match for strong men fighting to get a position to photograph someone. I’m all for the Equal Rights Amendment, but don’t tell me we’re equal when it comes to physical strength!
But if you look at my picture of Bob Capa, you can see that in that case it paid to be a woman. When I took that picture, he was flirting with me, so the picture shows off his personality. I think Fortune missed the boat years ago when they didn’t hire women to shoot men executives and men to shoot women executives.
JB: What do you think about when you’re photographing?
RO: I think about whether or not the exposure is right and wonder if somebody is going to move and ruin the whole composition. Afterwards, I think about printing, labeling and filing, trying to get published, and money. That’s what it’s all about. I don’t like the idea of people analyzing and reading something into your work. Half the time they’re all wet.
JB: Do you do your own printing now?
RO: God forbid. I don’t even have the time to get my negatives and pictures filed the way I’d like them. I’m really working hard on that, with the help of an assistant, so I can get my books out. But I’ve stopped printing. When I tried to do some printing for my first show at Witkin in 1977, I went crazy. It was like a concert pianist who hadn’t practiced for twenty years. After two days spent producing unusable prints, I said, this is it. Let somebody else do it.
JB: I see your name in print again and again now, and you’re continually referred to as “one of America’s most outstanding photographers,” or something of the sort. What’s your reaction to that?
RO: Ha, ha, ha! Well, I mean it’s very nice to be appreciated. Actually, the interesting thing is the meaning these pictures are taking on thirty or forty years after I took them. Of course, a lot of that is because photography has become an art form, so called, and people are paying for it.
JB: I got the impression from A Photo Journal that now that you’re devoting most of your attention to compiling your photographs in book form, you’re for all practical purposes a retired photographer…
RO: Are you kidding?! I’ve never worked so hard at photography in my life! So many people think of photography as just getting behind a camera and pushing a button. When I was working as a photojournalist, I always said that photography was ten percent taking pictures and ninety percent selling them. Now that there’s such a limited market for photojournalism, it’s more like two percent taking pictures and ninety-eight percent selling them through books and exhibits and so on. Taking the picture is the tip of the iceberg. Making something with the pictures you’ve taken—like the books I’m working on—is what’s really important.