The big picture: Ruth Orkin’s modern New York woman, 1949 | Photography

In early 1950, John Godfrey Morris, editor of the Ladies’ Home Journal, wanted to change the studio poses of its cover photographs to reflect a more liberated postwar woman. He invited photographers to submit ideas and promised $2,000 for each shot chosen, plus $500 for the model.

Ruth Orkin, the daughter of a silent film actor, was then 29. She had been making her way as a photographer in New York ever since she had cycled to the city in an epic two-wheel road trip from Los Angeles 12 years earlier, taking pictures as she went. She knew exactly the kind of picture that Morris was looking for. “I had not only just photographed a beautiful girl who was not a model, but she was doing something that all his female readers could identify with,” Orkin later recalled. The woman was a New York City housewife called Geraldine Dent and Orkin had photographed her at a greengrocer with a bursting bag of fruit, and a bitten strawberry to match her lipstick, scarf and beret. The magazine with Orkin’s cover sold out its 4m print run as soon as it hit the news stands, the first time a 35mm colour slide had been used on the front of one of the “slicks”.

The picture features in a retrospective book of Orkin’s work published on the centenary of her birth, edited by her daughter Mary Engel. Orkin died in 1985. Her always-adventurous career included an Oscar nomination for her landmark independent film, The Little Fugitive, the era-defining photoshoot in Rome entitled “Don’t be afraid to travel alone”, and two bestselling books of pictures shot from her apartment window overlooking Central Park. In her introduction to the book, Engel writes: “When I was a little girl, my mother was larger than life. She told me to call her Ruth at a young age so she could hear me in a crowd. She was warm, but she could be tough and strong too. In my eyes, she had it all…”

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