Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Mary Engel, photo and film archivist

This interview with Mary Engel about her parents, the talented filmmaker Morris Engel and the creative and legendary photographer Ruth Orkin, began over the telephone. As she requested during that call, I submitted a few questions to her in an E-mail... and her answers appear below.

The many biographies of Morris Engel all state he was a combat cameraman with the US Army Signal Corps during World War II, and he was present during the D-Day landings at Normandy. Morris Engel took much of the film footage that has appeared in documentaries featuring the D-Day landings. Morris Engel wrote and directed three films: "The Little Fugitive" (1953), "Lovers and Lollipops" (1956), and "Weddings and Babies" (1958). I recall first seeing "The Little Fugitive" as a child. It is about a young boy who is tricked into believing he shot his brother. He runs away to Coney Island and he has quite a day of adventure before his brother finds him and brings him home. Today, "The Little Fugitive" is recognized as a very well done independent film which influenced such filmmakers as John Cassavettes and Francois Truffaut. In April 2009, TCM aired a tribute to Morris Engel called "Morris Engel: The Independent" (2007). The documentary is by Mary Engel and it explores her father's life, career, and work with his wife Ruth Orkin.

During that same day in April, TCM showed a documentary called "Ruth Orkin: Frames of Life" (1997). The biographical documentary was also directed by Mary Engel and it is about her mother’s work during her career as a very talented and gifted photographer. So many of Ruth Orkin's photos give me a general feeling for times gone by and "Comic Book Readers," New York City, 1947, evokes a very personal and emotional nostalgic response. Mary can be seen in her mother's photo, "Mary and Morris Shaving," New York City, 1966.

These are Mary's replies to the questions:
Q: How do you think your father influenced independent film?
A: My father Morris Engel was one of the first independent filmmakers in New York City, and his film “Little Fugitive” (1953) has tremendous significance in film history. He made the film with my mother, photographer, Ruth Orkin. I think they both inspired many filmmakers, and the response to the film even today 56 years later is extraordinary. My father made the hand-held 35mm movie camera with a friend Charlie Woodruff, and that enabled him to shoot “Little Fugitive” from the little boy’s perspective, with only one assistant. The film was made for only $30,000, during a four-week period over the summer in Coney Island. “Little Fugitive” was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Motion Picture Story (now known as Best Original Screenplay) and won the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival. It has also been added to the Library of Congress National Film Registry, and was restored by the Museum of Modern Art. Francois Truffaut said, “Our New Wave would never have come into being, if it wasn’t for the young American Morris Engel who showed us the way with “Little Fugitive.” Also, as stated in my new film “Morris Engel: The Independent” there were several important documentary filmmakers such as Albert Maysles and D.A. Pennebaker who were influenced by him, and who made their own cameras after seeing my father’s camera. The French filmmaker Jean Luc Godard also wanted to borrow my father’s camera.

Q: Do you have any memories of participating in "Mary and Morris Shaving," New York City, 1966?
A. My memories of the photo “Mary and Morris Shaving, NYC, 1966” are primarily from the photo. My mother had 500-watt lights in every room so she wouldn’t miss anything. However, she primarily shot everything candid, so I don’t have memories of being posed, or resenting having her constantly shooting. I love now having all the photos that I do have of my childhood.

Q: On a personal level, "Comic Book Readers," New York City, 1947, gives me a general feeling of nostalgia and a feeling for times gone by. Can you talk a bit about how other photos may evoke that emotional nostalgic response?
A. I think both of my parent’s photos evoke memories of the past because they were taken primarily in the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s. It brings back an era that people think of as golden, and when New York was a different place. Obviously, for me, I can only dream about what it was like, because I was born in the 60’s, but I love looking at all the photos to see how different parts of the city used to look like. In addition, much of the architecture was so wonderful, and it is a shame that so many buildings were torn down, that it is great to have memories of these landmarks from their photos.

Q: Are you planning any exhibits of your mother's work?
A. I work full-time as the archivist of my parent’s work, at the Orkin/Engel Film and Photo Archive so I’m continually trying to promote their work by arranging new shows, working on various projects, and planning new books. I have published several catalogs of their work on my own. The websites are a great way to learn and see more of their photographs. Go to The Ruth Orkin Photo Archive, and The Morris Engel Photo Archive.

The above Ruth Orkin photo, "Comic Book Readers," New York City (1947) appears at this blog with the written permission of Mary Engel. It is from the "Children" collection.

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