Although perhaps best known for her work as a still photographer, Ruth Orkin was among the first women directors in American independent filmmaking. Rising to success in 1953 alongside husband and co-director Morris Engel with the classic Little Fugitive, she helped pioneer a vibrant, photojournalistic style celebrated as much for its low-budget realism as its uncommon humanity; while serving double-duty as the film's editor, Orkin also forged an instinctive, rhythmic style that would prove profoundly influential on the French New Wave. Born September 3, 1921, Orkin was the only child of silent film actress Mary Ruby. She was raised in Hollywood, and after receiving a Univex camera at age ten soon gave up autograph hunting to begin photographing her celebrity favorites instead. At 17, Orkin bicycled cross-country to attend the 1939 World's Fair in New York City, and at 21 began working as a messenger on the MGM lot. She quit the position a few months later after learning the cinematographers' union refused to accept female members.
Upon relocating to New York in 1943, Orkin worked by day as a portrait photographer, and by night shot pictures at area nightclubs. The exposure helped her land photojournalism assignments for national magazines including Life, Look, and Ladies' Home Journal; she was also a member of the Photo League, a group founded on the belief that shooting pictures could serve as a catalyst for social change. Orkin was particularly noted for her photos of classical musicians like Leonard Bernstein and Isaac Stern, and in 1951 she accompanied the Israeli Philharmonic to Israel, where she lived for several months on a kibbutz. From there she went to Italy, and while in Florence shot her signature photograph, American Girl in Italy. With her return to New York, she re-established ties with Engel, a fellow Photo League member; the couple married in 1952, and had two children.
Orkin and Engel were wed while in the midst of working on Little Fugitive, a collaboration with friend and fellow director Ray Ashley. Shot on a shoestring 30,000-dollar budget and filmed by Engel with a handheld 35-millimeter camera to create a fluid, intimate cinéma vérité style, the film -- the darkly comic story of a Brooklyn child who flees to Coney Island in the mistaken belief that he's shot and killed his older brother -- boasts a grittiness remarkable both for its time and its family friendly content, and remains a touchstone for independent filmmakers on both sides of the Atlantic. Orkin, who had previously edited several experimental films, assembled Engel's vibrant black-and-white footage with kinetic brilliance, and Little Fugitive went on to win the Silver Lion for Best Direction at the 1953 Venice Film Festival, also receiving an Academy Award nomination for Best Motion Picture Story. In 1997, it was inducted into the National Film Registry by the National Film Preservation Board.
Commercial and critical success did little to secure financing for a follow-up, however, and Engel and Orkin filmed 1955's sublime Lovers and Lollipops on the same tight budget of its predecessor. Another black-and-white New York City reverie, it beautifully complements Little Fugitive, articulating a similar understanding for the wonderment and terror children face in coming to terms with the world around them. As the couple's own children grew older, however, Orkin receded from filmmaking to devote more time to motherhood; she remained an accomplished photographer, however, and in 1959 was named alongside Margaret Bourke-White and Dorothea Lange one of the top women photographers in the U.S. by the Professional Photographers of America. For over three decades, she regularly photographed the view outside her Central Park West apartment, and later collected the pictures in a pair of books, 1978's A World Through My Window and 1983's More Pictures From My Window. After a long battle with cancer, Orkin died January 16, 1985; she was 63.