Orkin & Engel at Mad Rose
Kathy Plesser, at left in the foreground, and Amy Singer peruse books on Ruth Orkin’s work, sold at the gallery for Oblong Books. In the background, from left, Mary Engel,  Lisa Aiba, Richard Block and Steve Aresty are deep in their respective conversations. 
Photo by Deborah Maier

Orkin & Engel at Mad Rose

A crowd of about 70 aficionados gathered at The Moviehouse in Millerton on Saturday, Nov. 18, for a screening marking the start of the new Orkin/Engel exhibit at Mad Rose Gallery.  

Gallery owner Neal Rosenthal thanked audience members and The Moviehouse for the opportunity to recognize the significance of Ruth Orkin’s contribution to both filmmaking and photography, and to enhance the meanings and references in the photographs in the gallery show.  He then introduced filmmaker Mary Engel, the daughter of Ruth Orkin and Morris Engel, whose 18-minute Sundance Film Festival-accepted documentary was shown first.

“Ruth Orkin: Frames of Life” is a tribute to the younger Engel’s mother, by all accounts an extraordinary woman from a remarkable family. In 1939, 17-year-old Ruth bicycled across the United States, using her 2 1/4-inch Pilot 6 camera to document street life along the way and to form her unique style. The trip, and a handsome catalogue of those photos, is currently featured at the Cartier-Bresson Foundation in Paris.  The documentary features luminaries Mary Ellen Mark and Cornell Capa, among others, extolling Orkin’s eye and discussing what makes photography art or not.

The original 80-minute “Little Fugitive,” available on Kanopy and other streaming services, is compelling for its story of a small boy on the loose in New York City subways and at Coney Island, and visually rich with its black and white compositions that are clearly, as Rosenthal pointed out, the work of a consummate photographer. Orkin was responsible for the editing and other uncredited work on the film, and present in some cameos.

In a post-film Q&A, Mary Engel addressed “questions people always ask” and others. Though casting was done in the usual way by approaching professionals and schools, the young hero Joey was played by 7-year-old Richie Andrusco, who was discovered on the carousel in Coney Island. Andrusco’s mother permitted her child to take part, with the proviso that she would not pay for it. “We’ll pay you, and take him off your hands for a month”, she was told by the producers. Now 77, Andrusco never acted again, but did buy his family a house in Queens.

As to who directed the film, the astonishing answer was the young Andrusco himself, who was plied with treats and allowed to follow his wishes. One of the pleasures of the film is the perspective of the shots as seen through the eyes of someone not yet 4 feet tall.  A sea of naked legs and hips with the more modest swimwear of the 1950s is almost everywhere he turns in the crowded beach scenes. 

The nostalgia value was high for the audience of both films and photos, and differences between mores of the 1950s and now, were instructive. The "child alone in public" concept was one; also, as physician Neil Hoffman of Millerton pointed out, obesity was nearly absent in the crowd scenes.  We are now “slightly taller, and much heavier,” according to the CDC.

Other astounding facts were the film’s budget — a paltry $35,000 — and the fact that its entire sound track was recorded in post-production, from its raucous carnies to its haunting harmonica riffs and boisterous child bickering.

At Mad Rose Gallery, Morris Engel’s photos taken in Harlem are particularly riveting, and seeing Orkin’s famed “American Girl in Italy, Florence,” with model Jinx striding chin up through a crowd of leering men, is a treat. The 33 images on view range in price according to whether they are Vintage or Lifetime, Signed or Stamped, by either Orkin or Engel. The Gallery show extends until Sunday,  Dec. 31.

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