Morris Engel

Morris Engel was born in 1918 in Brooklyn to immigrant parents from Lithuania. An early interest in photography led him, in 1935, to enroll in a class at the New York Photo League, a group dedicated to raising social consciousness through documentary photography. Some of the most influential photographers of the time were associated with the Photo League; Engel worked closely with Aaron Siskind on the “Harlem Document” project from 1936-40 and later assisted Paul Strand in filming Native Land.
Like many Photo League members, Engel documented life in New York City, producing and exhibiting photo essays on a variety of subjects, including Coney Island, the Lower East Side and Harlem.  In 1939 he had his first exhibition at the New School for Social Research. In 1940 he joined the staff of the newspaper PM, but he left one year later to sign on with the U.S. Navy, becoming Chief Photographer’s Mate, Combat Photo Unit #8. Engel’s participation in the June 6, 1944 D-Day invasion, where he photographed the allied landing on Utah Beach, earned him the U.S. Navy Citation for Meritorious Photography.  The award was given on October 27, 1945 and signed by Edward Steichen.  After the war, Engel became a top freelancer in the golden age of magazine photography – the late 1940s and early 1950s.  The talented artist was also deeply interested in film and in 1953, made The Little Fugitive, an independent feature which was nominated for an Oscar.  The film – made with Engel’s wife Ruth Orkin (they married that same year) – was highly regarded by François Truffaut, who cited the film as a catalyst for French New Wave cinema. Engel spent the next quarter-century making independent feature films and directing commercials – picking up the still camera again in the late 1970s.

Engel’s photographs have been widely exhibited and are in the collections of many individuals and institutions; among the latter are the International Center of Photography (New York), the Museum of the City of New York, the Museum of Modern Art (New York) and the National Portrait Gallery (Washington, D.C.). His films continue to be screened at venues such as the Whitney Museum of Art (New York), the Brooklyn Museum and the American Museum of the Moving Image (New York).  A lifelong New Yorker, Morris Engel died in 2005 from cancer.

In 1939, Paul Strand wrote:

“His unusual capacity not only to see keenly and quickly, but also to integrate plastically what he sees gives promise of an important contribution to photography.  This, his first one-man show, is in itself solid evidence of genuine talent.”

–  from the introduction for the solo exhibition of the young Engel at the New School for Social Research.