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f³ – freiraum für fotografie : Ruth Orkin : Women


The Berlin gallery is devoting an exhibition to the woman who, at a very young age, took up photography to become one of the pioneers in the United States. Between a tool of emancipation and feminist expression, Ruth Orkin’s objective distances itself from a vision of the unified woman and easily plays with clichés.

A camera in her hands from the age of ten and at just 17, a solo road trip across the United States with a bicycle as her only ally… Ruth Orkin very early on had all the makings of a great reporter.

Immersed in the world of cinema thanks to her mother who was an actress, Ruth Orkin (1921-1985) grew up in Hollywood she  managed to carve out a key place in the photographic landscape of the 40s and 50s, among giants in photography such as Walker Evans (1903-1975) or Saul Leiter (1923-2013). The seventh art for which she had a fascination and the street which takes on a cinematic appearance under her gaze were her favorite themes, with a common denominator: women.

Capturing grace

In the city or on the sets, in color or in black and white, in the United States or in Italy, Ruth Orkin looked at women in a sensitive way. In the streets of New York, Ruth Orkin captured friends, sisters, intellectuals, wives, mothers and young girls. She captured the heavy gaze of a married woman addressed to her husband, a laugh of crazy spontaneity through the window of a telephone booth or even a frantic discussion on the edge of an alley where wearing pants among a gaggle of floral dresses resonate as an incredible sign of vindication.

These photographs reflecting a more or less contrasting image of the American women of the time are backed by shots of great Hollywood stars whose memories still resonate today: Doris Dray on the set of the musical By the Light of the Silvery Moon or even Nanette Fabray on that of The Band Wagon. And there is this whole series of sublime portraits of celebrities like Joan Taylor, Julie Adams or even and obviously, this iconic portrait of Lauren Bacall on the phone, staring into space with an impeccable hair style.

A feminist avant-garde look

Mixed with these images testifying to the growth of the film industry, Ruth Orkin revealed behind the scenes with images imbued with humor, such as this superb shot in the 1950s of an actress having her hair done, cigarette in mouth and newspaper in hands. A biting irony which was already evident in the dog show series in New York in 1949 where women and dogs respond to each other in mirrors.

The exhibition highlights an eminent, committed reportage published in the New York Times in 1945 in which the columnist contrasts the life of a career woman with that of a housewife: “Who Works Harder?”. The two studies leave this famous question unanswered, which could still constitute a spicy social debate today.

It is with humor and curiosity that the sensitive Ruth Orkin documents a Western world in full development. Under her lens, women acquire rights, tame their freedom and allow themselves aspirations, all forming fascinating archives of a time when their existences were rarely considered.

Noémie de Bellaigue


Ruth Orkin au f³ – freiraum für fotografie in Berlin until February 18th, 2024.

f³ – freiraum für fotografie
Waldemarstraße 17
10179 Berlin

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