Made You Look
Being able to make people see through a woman’s eyes has never been easy, but Ruth Orkin found a way to make a living at it only a handful of years after women were allowed to vote in the United States.
“Being a photographer is making people look at what I want them to look at,” Orkin said. To that we add, being a writer at PROVOKR is making people find what they need to find – the buried bits that pop culture drugs and ditches. We were drawn to Orkin’s work because she shares our sentiment.
In other words, you can’t look away now, sugar.
Ruth Orkin photographed New York City’s many faces throughout the 20th century. The city was a jewel she exposed to its own light, its asymmetrical facets both blinding and receding. At the time, photojournalism was still a mystical art, widely adored and narrowly understood, and yet to call her work a spell would hardly do it justice. She was a child of Gatsby’s gilded age; she drew close to strangers’ joy and pain, their fatigue and lust. Like a moth, she brushed against the light of a leering man’s smile as he watched a sexy dame stroll down the street, then flew high above it all to observe a sleeping baby in her carriage.
Early in her career, she photographed nightclubs after dark and shot portraits of babies by day until she landed gigs with nearly every major magazine of the ‘40s. In the ‘50s, she completed a series titled, “Don’t Be Afraid to Travel Alone,” aimed at easing the fears many women felt about venturing out in the world without male protection. She saw the shift in the world. The gravity of the Second World War weighed society’s steps in ways bubbly aspiring housewives weren’t allowed to acknowledge. In many ways, her work reached into viewers’ hearts and commanded them to see what was real, not what they were told to see.
Drenching rain collapses on the shoulders of shadowy figures clacking fitfully down a sidewalk. A boy strikes morse code with his fingers along the links of the fence that separates him from one of the greatest cities in the world. A mother and daughter wait, watch, wonder what’s next.
Everything has changed since then, but don’t confuse change with progress. Orkin didn’t.