(director/writer: Mary Engel; cinematographer: Mary Engel; editor: Pierre Kahn; music: Donna Lee Weng; cast: Julie Harris (Narrator); Runtime: 18; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Mary Engel; TCM; 1997)

“A very good no-nonsense 18-minute documentary.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A very good no-nonsense 18-minute documentary by Mary Engel, her film debut on her acclaimed photographer and filmmaker mother Ruth Orkin (1921-1985). It’s narrated by Julie Harris, and features an intimate portrait of the artistic lady whose collaborations with her husband Morris Engel began the independent filmmaking movement in New York City in the early fifties.

The documentary includes interviews with photographer Mary Ellen Mark, Cornell Capa (the founder of the International Center of Photography in New York), Ninalee Craig and Morris Engel.

Orkin was born in Los Angeles, where her mom had been a silent film actress and her father was well-known for his miniature models of such famous sights and landmarks as the telescope at Griffith Park in Los Angeles. The family life was nomadic, and they didn’t have much money. Ruth became interested in cinema and photography at an early age. As a young adult she became a messenger girl at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, but when the studio refused to hire a woman as a cinematographer she turned to her love of photography as a career. Her career began in earnest in 1943 when she moved to New York City. There she met renown photographer Morris Engel and would marry him ten years later. Ruth’s black and white photos of subjects that ranged from New York City street scenes and people to famous celebrities (Albert Einstein, Orson Welles, Spencer Tracy, Lauren Bacall, Humphrey Bogart, Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, Ethel Waters, etc) became well-known. Her work eventually won critical acclaim and accolades from the great photographer Edward Steichen, who included her photograph “The Card Players” in his famous exhibition at MOMA “The Family of Man.” Ruth collaborated with her husband on several low-budget films that began with the 1953 The Little Fugitive, that was shot guerrilla style in Coney Island as it followed a lost boy around and won the Silver Bear Award at Cannes. For most of her life the Big Apple was Ruth’s canvas and this little snapshot of her, paints a pretty picture of her life.