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Geoff Dyer on Ruth Orkin

Photographs depict a moment but they can contain years, decades. Few, however, are as saturated with history as Ruth Orkin's picture of the crowd gathered in Times Square on VE Day, 8 May 1945.

To release this history from the image we need to go back at least to 1914, to the photographs of the "long uneven lines" of men queuing up to enlist. For Philip Larkin, in his poem "MCMXIV", the grinning faces make it all look like an "August Bank Holiday lark". Photographs like these are complemented by the ones taken in 1919, when an army of the surrogate dead marched past the Cenotaph in London in acknowledgement of the cataclysm that the lark had turned into. In another sense, though, the catastrophe was not complete: the ending of the First World War created the conditions for a Second. The treaty at Versailles merely closed a phase of a war that would last, with rumbling truces, until 1945.

The end of the Second World War left Britain militarily victorious but economically ruined. America, meanwhile, was unequivocally victorious. Power crossed the Atlantic. "The United States", Churchill conceded, "stands at this moment at the summit of the world." That summit would not be attained until victory over Japan but Orkin's picture shows the jubilant future that is now within reach. In her novel The Great Fire, Shirley Hazzard paints a dismal picture of London in the immediate post-war period. Even in 1948, "everything is shabby and sombre as in wartime, and greatly scarred". When Albert Camus had arrived in New York two years previously, by contrast, his impression was "of overflowing wealth". This wealth is conspicuously advertised in Orkin's picture. Churchill was obsessed with maintaining the British Empire but from now on the IMPERIAL march of American branding and merchandising will be unstoppable.

Orkin's picture also contains a certain amount of photographic history. Walker Evans had established street signs and billboards as part of the lexicon of American photography in the 1930s. (Orkin's behind-the-scenes shot of a historic event is also a behind-the-signs view that anticipates Robert Frank's 1958 picture of part – OH – of the Hollywood sign or Michael Ormerod's later view of a TEXACO sign.) Edward Steichen and Alfred Stieglitz had both photographed the Flatiron building at the beginning of the century, immediately adding it to the photographic catalogue of New York landmarks. The office block in the middle of Orkin's picture shares the high-prowed magnificence of the Flatiron building to such an extent that it looks, almost, like an ocean liner surging into the future. The name of this ship? Well, the figurehead makes that obvious: the SS Liberty! Although we are seeing an actual place, it is as if various geographically dispersed symbols of New York have been compressed into a composite of the city, a concentration of American-ness that is at once mythic and real. There is even something identifiably American about the people on the roof. The body language of the guy in the white shirt and trilby could only be American. Finding something "peculiarly American" about Gatsby's "resourcefulness of movement" Scott Fitzgerald wondered if this might be down to "the absence of lifting work in youth" (which makes us wonder how places like Times Square got built in the first place).    

The Third Reich had tainted the idea of the crowd. The carefully drilled Nuremberg rallies were frightening demonstrations of the way that a people could abandon the cherished ideals of the Enlightenment and plunge, willingly, into the darkness of the herd instinct. In Times Square the crowd is not deliberately choreographed but the occasion was arranged in a way that has since become widespread in that its purpose was, partly, to be recorded. Orkin, in this respect, was the perfect person to do the recording. Her most famous picture is of a young American woman walking down a street in Florence, leaving a trail of gawping men in her wake. It's a classic piece of spontaneous street photography – except it was set up in advance by the photographer and a model friend of hers. The lecherous Italians were actually being good sports, were playing themselves.

The Times Square crowd is good-natured, ecstatic. Cleverly, Max Kozloff, editor of the book New York Capital of Photography (the title alone is a fine example of the vaulting confidence that pervades America in the post-war period) juxtaposes Orkin's picture with Weegee's of the sardine-crowd on Coney Island on a sweltering day in 1940. Weegee's explanatory caption could be transferred to Orkin's: "They came early and stayed late" – and, it could be added, they played their part with gusto. In the sixty years since VE Day, news stories and staged media events have become almost impossible to disentangle from each other. In keeping with this Orkin records the event as it is being recorded by CBS.

That logo looks quaintly old-fashioned but something else gives the photo a very contemporary touch: the woman to the right of the picture. The fact that she has gained access to this privileged vantage point is a significant achievement in itself. She could be one of the brainy, ambitious Vassar girls whose lives were chronicled by Mary McCarthy in The Group. As such she is a role model for the later masters – mistresses, rather – of discreet reportage such as Joan Didion and Janet Malcolm. Most obviously, though, she can be seen as Orkin's own deputy. Orkin stays in the background, unseen, but as Dorothea Lange, one of the pre-eminent documentary photographers of the 1930s, had recommended, she includes her own representative in the picture: "a figure who is part of it all, though only watching and watching". What makes this picture so utterly contemporary, however, is not the woman's presence but her posture. What is she doing? Cut her out of this 1945 photo and paste her into a shot of some contemporary news event – Pope X's funeral at St Peter's, for example – and you would swear that she was talking on a cell phone.

Since Orkin's picture shows people documenting an event that occurred partly so that it could be documented I began to wonder if there were photos which showed this document – this photo – being made. I found several – or thought I had. The best one, by an uncredited photographer, shows the view from behind Liberty. Exactly as in Weegee's Coney Island photograph the people in the crowd raise their hats and wave to the camera. But even if you know where the HOTEL ASTOR is – or used to be; it has since been demolished – you can't quite make out the sign. And working out exactly where the unknown photographer was standing – finding him within Orkin's field of vision – proved far trickier than expected.

After scrutinising both photos I looked at the cinema just above the O of the hotel in Orkin's picture. It was showing a film called Salty O-something, starring Alan Ladd. And that same sign can be seen in its entirety (Salty O'Rourke), just above the sea of heads, at the far left-hand side of the other picture. Calibrating the various angles of vision was like trying to trace the trajectory of bullets from the JFK assassination – and the evidence didn't quite match up. I assumed that the shooter was somewhere below the American flags (above the reversed E of HOTEL) but that didn't make sense because the photo was taken to the right – from Orkin's point of view, the left – of Liberty. This meant it had to have been taken somewhere below the IMPERIAL sign. If this was the case why couldn't we see the cinema showing the movies with Cary Grant and Ray Milland? Perhaps the news cameramen were in the way. They are – but glimpsed between the chest of the guy in the white shirt and trilby and his colleague you can just make out a few letters – the GRAN of Grant, the LAN of Milland – of this sign. We can now see the event from both sides. It is complete. By obliquely corroborating each other's testimony the two photographs seal us within the moment. But how long does this moment last, how far into the future does it extend?

Orkin depicts a day of boundless euphoria. The ship of Liberty sails into the future but in doing so – unlike the woman photographed by Orkin in Florence – it leaves increasing hostility in its wake. As the American imperium grows so the meaning of its symbols changes, especially in the Arab world. By the 1970s, to the Syrian-born poet Adonis (Ali Ahmad Said),

New York is a woman

holding, according to history,

a rag called liberty with one hand

and strangling the earth with the other.

Adonis' visionary poem is prophetically entitled "The Funeral of New York". A reaction of some kind to the hubris it depicts is inevitable. We live now in the aftermath of that reaction. "Let statues of liberty crumble", the poet continues. "An eastern wind uproots tents and skyscrapers with its wings." Taken in the middle of New York, Orkin's photograph stands right in the middle of the American century which began with the larking crowds of 1914 and ended with the shocked onlookers gazing in disbelief at the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001.

This article comes from Geoff Dyer's Working the Room: Essays and Reviews, 1999-2010, published by Canongate in 2015. Thanks to Mary Engel, the Director of the Engel Film and Photo Archive, for her kind permission to reprint the first photo above.

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