September 19, 2023 - January 14, 2024
For the first time in France, the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson presents a solo exhibition on American photographer Ruth Orkin (1921-1985), internationally known for her photograph American Girl in Italy (1951), an iconic image of a women traveling alone. While still a teenager, Orkin undertook a pioneering journey across the United States from West to East.
In 1939, at 17 and still living with her parents in Los Angeles, Ruth Orkin decided to cross the United States solo, from the Pacific to the Atlantic. She traveled less by bicycle than with a bicycle, crossing long distances by car, train, and bus, using her bicycle to explore big cities: Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington, New York, Boston and San Francisco.
Over a four-month period, she took 350 photographs: urban scenes, numerous self-portraits and striking compositions framed by her bicycle. In each city she visited, local newspapers covered her story, interviewing and photographing her. With the unexpected publicity, she was invited everywhere, given tickets to shows, and even received a new two-wheeler.
Orkin’s stated aim upon departure was to visit the New York World’s Fair, but the transcontinental adventure proved far more decisive. It was a defining moment in her personal and artistic development, confirming the old adage: it’s not the destination, it’s the journey.
The exhibition brings together around forty photographs and archival documents, including Ruth Orkin’s manuscript on this adventure.
Curator of the exhibition
Clément Chéroux, director, Fondation HCB
Born in Boston in 1921, 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, at 17 years old, she took a monumental bicycle trip across the United States from Los Angeles to New York City to see the 1939 World’s Fair, and she photographed along the way.
In 1943, the photographer moved to New York where worked for all the major magazines, including LIFE, which sent her to Israel in 1951. She then went to Italy, where she met Jinx Allen, an art student and fellow American, who became the subject of American Girl in Italy. The photograph was part of a series titled When You Travel Alone, about what they encountered as women traveling alone in Europe after the war.
On her return to New York, Orkin married the photographer and filmmaker Morris Engel. Together they produced two feature films, including Little Fugitive, which was nominated at the Oscar in 1953. From their New York apartment overlooking Central Park, Orkin photographed numerous events (marathons, parades, concerts) and the beauty of the changing seasons. Ruth Orkin passed away in 1985.