A frame in our times

Doc­u­ment­ing how beloved pho­to­jour­nal­ist David Rub­inger ‘cap­tured the truth’

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - CONTENTS - • By BARRY DAVIS

Con­sid­er­ing that David Rub­inger is viewed by many as our most cel­e­brated pho­to­jour­nal­ist, pub­lic dis­plays of his oeu­vre have been very few and far be­tween. “This is, in fact, the first ex­hi­bi­tion of his work for 30 years,” notes Guy Raz. Raz is the brains and heart be­hind the “I Cap­tured the Truth, 19471997” ex­hi­bi­tion cur­rently in progress at the Eretz Is­rael Mu­seum in Ra­mat Aviv.

Rub­inger is ar­guably the most in­trepid of im­age-snap­pers this coun­try has ever pro­duced. He was born in Vi­enna in 1924 and made it to Pales­tine in 1939. In World War II, he served with the Bri­tish Army as a driver in the Jewish Bri­gade and first laid his hands on a cam­era in 1945 in Paris. It was love at first click and he never looked back.

Be­fore Rub­inger died last year at the age of 92, he was out and about ev­ery day, gen­er­ally with one or more of his trusty Le­icas at hand, al­most to the end. One of the wall texts at the ex­hi­bi­tion fea­tures a quote from him, about his predilec­tion for al­ways be­ing at the ready.

“Since 1947, I have never left home with­out a cam­era. I feel lost with it. Most days I don’t take any pic­tures, but I am ab­so­lutely cer­tain that on the one day I don’t take the cam­era with me, I will miss an amaz­ing scene!”

I re­call run­ning into him over the years at var­i­ous events and ex­hi­bi­tion open­ings, and I never saw him with­out a cam­era hang­ing from his neck. But we are not talk­ing high-end, mam­moth lens jobs here, rather a com­pact model. In­deed, there al­ways seemed to be some­thing re­served about the man. He was as far away from the overt tabloid in-your-face mind-set as you can imag­ine. Even so, as the lay­out of 70 of his works at the mu­seum shows clearly, he gen­er­ally got his pic­ture.

If we know any­thing about Rub­inger at all, we have al­most cer­tainly seen his iconic shot of the IDF para­troop­ers at the Western Wall, shortly after the sa­cred site was taken in the Six Day War. It is the most dra­matic and emo­tive of frames, which over the past half cen­tury has been in­cor­po­rated into Is­raeli folk­lore and the na­tional psy­che. In­ter­est­ingly, if it had been up to the pho­tog­ra­pher we might never have got­ten to see the photo.

“Rub­inger wanted to send in a dif­fer­ent pic­ture he took,” says Raz. The snap he pre­ferred was taken a few min­utes later, when sol­diers hoisted IDF chief rabbi Shlomo Goren on their shoul­ders, elon­gated sho­far at the ready. Luck­ily for Rub­inger and the rest of us, the pho­tog­ra­pher’s wife An­nie begged to dif­fer. “She told him the photo of the para­troop­ers was much bet­ter,” Raz con­tin­ues. “Of course, she was right.”

RAZ HAD his work cut out to get the Eretz Is­rael Mu­seum show into a co­her­ent and pre­sentable state. Over the years, Rub­inger took pho­to­graphs for Ye­diot Aharonot, Time, Life and The Jerusalem Post, and ac­crued a stock of half a mil­lion prints and neg­a­tives. Sur­pris­ingly, it tran­spires that the ma­jor­ity of those fea­tured sports events and, in par­tic­u­lar, soc­cer.

“Thirty per­cent of his pho­to­graphs were shots of soc­cer games,” notes Raz. That seems a far cry from, for ex­am­ple, the hero­ism of the Western Wall shot, or the 1948 wide-an­gled pic­ture of Ben-Ye­huda Street in Jerusalem, taken in the wake of a car-bomb at­tack.

How does Raz equate Rub­inger’s in­ter­est in the for­tunes of Beitar Jerusalem and Hapoel Jerusalem with doc­u­ment­ing a lit­tle Pales­tinian girl look­ing dazed among the rub­ble of her de­mol­ished home or a photo taken in the thick of the ac­tion, as IDF sol­diers storm through the bil­low­ing smoke of ar­tillery in an at­tack on west Beirut in 1982?

“Tak­ing sports pic­tures was a liv­ing for Rub­inger,” Raz dead­pans. That seemed to be a lit­tle more than in­con­gru­ous, given Rub­inger’s propen­sity for never com­pro­mis­ing on his in­ner be­liefs. “Ac­tu­ally, he was crazy about soc­cer,” Raz adds with a smile. “Around 150,000 of the 500,000 im­ages in his ar­chive are of soc­cer.”

One iconic sports pic­ture in the ex­hi­bi­tion was taken in 1975, dur­ing a match that Beitar lost and was sub­se­quently rel­e­gated to a lower divi­sion. The sub­ject is a player ly­ing in­jured on the turf with his palms held flat against the grass. The photo next to it shows a hand from very dif­fer­ent cir­cum­stances. The lat­ter ap­pendage be­longs to an Egyp­tian solder killed in the Si­nai desert dur­ing the Six Day War. The con­trast could not be greater, and it is one of sev­eral oxy­moronic frame pair­ings the cu­ra­tor set up for our view­ing in­ter­est.

Rub­inger clearly had many strings to his aes­thetic and top­i­cal bow. The im­ages in the show take in Arab refugees leav­ing Jerusalem in the af­ter­math of the Six Day War, which Raz coun­ter­bal­ances with a com­pelling 1976 shot of pas­sen­gers from the Air France plane that was hi­jacked en route from Tel Aviv to Paris, who were held hostage in En­tebbe. The the­matic nip-and­tuck is glar­ingly ob­vi­ous, and the same is true of the jux­ta­pos­ing of the dra­matic scene of the 1982 evac­u­a­tion of Moshav Hatzav Adar near Yamit, and the ar­rival of new olim at the Parod tran­sit camp in the Galilee in 1954. It is a neat swing­ing-door cu­ra­to­rial line that ef­fi­ciently serves to en­hance the vis­i­tor’s vis­ual and emo­tional ex­pe­ri­ence. Other at­ten­tion-grab­bing twin­nings in­clude a sil­hou­et­ted tête-à-tête be­tween then-MKs Moshe Kat­sav and Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu, shot in the Knes­set res­tau­rant in 1995, along­side an off-the-cuff ex­change be­tween Egyp­tian pres­i­dent An­war Sa­dat and Is­raeli prime min­is­ter Me­nachem Be­gin, dur­ing the events sur­round­ing the sign­ing of the bi­lat­eral peace treaty in 1980.

The Kat­sav-Bibi por­trait was fa­cil­i­tated by the fact that Rub­inger was the only pho­to­jour­nal­ist given free rein in the Knes­set and other halls of of­fi­cial­dom. Pre­sum­ably, he had to ini­tially watch his step, and not ruf­fle any po­lit­i­cal or ego-fu­eled feath­ers; judg­ing by the re­sults, he must have man­aged that with ease. Rub­inger was a soft-spo­ken char­ac­ter with a ge­nial de­meanor, which must have gone down well with the politi­cians, en­abling him to at­tain in­valu­able fly-on­the-wall pres­ence.

AS YOU en­ter the ex­hi­bi­tion hall, you are met by a shot of the man him­self. There in front of you, cam­era held rock steady in his time­worn, yet still sinewy, hands is the then-nona­ge­nar­ian pho­to­jour­nal­ist with an unerring eye for com­po­si­tion and drama, cap­tur­ing defini­tively poignant sit­u­a­tions. His left eye is open which, clearly, in­di­cates he was pos­ing rather than caught in mid-click, but you get a pal­pa­ble sen­sa­tion of the mil­lions of scenes, of all kinds, his eyes sur­veyed dur­ing the course of his long and highly ac­tive life. There is a stee­li­ness about his gaze but also a strong sense of em­pa­thy. You just know he is not out to get you, or to show off your poorer side.

That, surely, takes some do­ing. Hav­ing done more than his fair share of wartime doc­u­men­ta­tion and other less salu­bri­ous sides of life and death, one might have ex­pected Rub­inger to de­velop thick skin, and be­come more than a lit­tle cyn­i­cal, but that does not seem to be the case. Some of the works are ex­tremely emo­tion­ally po­tent. Take, for ex­am­ple, the pic­ture of a me­mo­rial ser­vice for a fallen soldier taken in the af­ter­math of the Yom Kip­pur War, in 1973. It is hard not be moved by the im­age of the mourn­ing mother em­brac­ing the head­stone, and her dis­traught hus­band do­ing his best to com­fort her. This is the work of a pho­to­jour­nal­ist keen to cap­ture the naked emo­tion of the mo­ment, but also in­tent on ex­press­ing his com­pas­sion for the griev­ing woman.

“David was a men­sch,” Raz ob­serves, adding that Rub­inger al­ways did his best to main­tain a sense of in­tegrity and, as the ex­hi­bi­tion ti­tle im­plies, hon­esty. “He told the truth, as he saw it,’ says the cu­ra­tor. “He was from that gen­er­a­tion.”

That in­cluded steer­ing clear of pol­i­tics or be­ing guided by the po­lit­i­cal as­pi­ra­tions of the coun­try’s pow­ers that be.

“He thought about photograph­y,” says Raz. “He didn’t think about the state per se. He be­came in­creas­ingly left wing and moved away from the Zion­ist ideal and all that, but he al­ways re­tained his hu­man­is­tic ap­proach.”

That, says Raz, is present even in the war pho­to­graphs.

“Look at this pic­ture of the sol­diers in Beirut. There’s noth­ing too heroic about it. This isn’t about ideals or pol­i­tics. Rub­inger was a so­cial pho­tog­ra­pher. He took pic­tures of what hap­pened here, in this coun­try.”

Rub­inger also had a sense of hu­mor that, for ex­am­ple, comes across in his stat­uesque shot of a cou­ple of life­guards, com­plete with of­fi­cial Tel Aviv Mu­nic­i­pal­ity

(Pho­tos: David Rub­inger, Ye­dioth Ahronoth Group)

THEN-LA­BOR Party leader Yitzhak Rabin vot­ing in his party’s lead­er­ship elec­tions in the 1970s.

(Wiki­me­dia Com­mons)

DAVID RUB­INGER with his Le­ica cam­era.

IS­RAEL AIR FORCE pi­lots wit­ness the ar­rival of new fighter jets.

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