For the first time in France, the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson presents an exhibition entirely devoted to the American photographer Ruth Orkin (1921-1985). Internationally recognized for the photograph entitled American Girl in Italy (1951), an iconic image of a woman traveling alone, Ruth Orkin carried out a pioneering project when she was a teenager: crossing the Western United States starting in the west, going east.
In 1939, when she was 17 years old and living with her parents in Los Angeles, Ruth Orkin set out to cross the United States alone, from the Pacific to the Atlantic. She traveled by bicycle, or, to be more precise, with it. She went long distances by car, train or bus, using her bicycle to visit big cities: Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington, New York, Boston and San Francisco.
Over four months, the young woman took nearly 350 photographs: urban views, many self-portraits and astonishing compositions through the frame of her bicycle. In each of the towns she passed through, the local press followed her story, interviewed her and photographed her.
Thanks to this unexpected publicity, she was invited everywhere, received invitations to shows and even a new two-wheeler.
Orkin’s stated purpose for leaving was to visit the New York World’s Fair. But the transcontinental adventure was much more decisive. It became a defining moment of training and emancipation for her, thus verifying the popular saying that the important thing is not the destination, but the journey itself.
The exhibition brings together around forty photographs and archival documents, including Ruth Orkin’s manuscript of this adventure.
Born in 1921 in Boston, Ruth Orkin grew up in Hollywood.
At the age of 10, she received her first camera and began photographing her friends and teachers at school. In 1938, when she was just 17 years old, Ruth Orkin took a bicycle trip across the United States, from Los Angeles to New York, to attend the 1939 World’s Fair.
She photographed this adventure from start to finish.
In 1943, the photographer settled in New York and worked for numerous magazines, including LIFE which sent her to Israel in 1951. She then stopped in Italy where she met Jinx Allen, an American art student, who became the subject of American Girl in Italy. This famous photograph is part of a series called When You Travel Alone…, which chronicled the experiences of women traveling alone in Europe after the war.
Back in New York, Ruth Orkin married photographer and filmmaker Morris Engel. Together, they produced two feature films including Little Fugitive, nominated for an Oscar in 1953. From their New York apartment overlooking Central Park, Ruth Orkin photographed numerous events (marathons, parades, concerts) and the beauty of the changing seasons. Ruth Orkin died in 1985.
Clément Chéroux, director, Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson
With the support of the RATP.
Ruth Orkin: Bike Trip, USA, 1939
September 19, 2023 – January 14, 2024
Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson
79 rue des Archives 75003 Paris
+33 (0)1 40 61 50 50