Resurrection

By SAM SER
July 19, 2007 11:22

The most famous photographer in the country's history promotes the work of the least appreciated one.




Resurrection

Ben Gurion on head 298. (photo credit: Paul Goldman/Photo Art Israel)

David Rubinger is on the phone, and he's excited. Very excited. "This is excellent," he says. "Amazing!" Rubinger is practically jumping through the phone - not surprisingly, because of photographs. Not, however, his own photographs. "I have just been going through the negatives," he says, "and this is really wonderful, historic stuff. You must mention it in your story!"

  • The Paul Goldman photo gallery Well, then, here it is: Among the forgotten treasures of Paul Goldman's black-and-white photographs are hundreds of never-before-seen images of Israel's clandestine rescue of Yemenite Jewry. Only days after meeting with me to discuss the rest of Goldman's work, Rubinger has viewed the material, which he saved from decay a few years ago, and by so doing opened a new chapter in the saga of Israel's unknown photojournalism pioneer. That's the short version. By rights, this story should be millions of words long - or longer. After all, it is about an archive of thousands of pictures. Each picture, as the saying goes, is worth a thousand words. But these, according to the man on the other end of the phone, are worth even more. Rubinger should know. The Israel Prize-winning photojournalist and legendary Time magazine contributor has captured some of the most famous photos in the country's history. The most famous is his shot of awestruck paratroopers at the Western Wall, which has become the iconic image of the Six Day War. Speaking candidly in the study of his Jerusalem home, Rubinger displays a keen awareness of, and comfort with, his own fame and accomplishments. It's hard to get away from them, in fact, what with the photos of Anwar Sadat and Golda Meir - his photos - staring at him from the walls. Next to the Israel Prize, which was awarded to him in 1997 for his life's work, hang press passes from the White House, from peace treaty signing ceremonies, from dozens of other moments that people remember because of the momentous photographs Rubinger and his colleagues have taken. What most interests Rubinger these days, however, is Goldman - a man, he believes, who never received the recognition he deserved for a career that is only now beginning to be appreciated as outstanding. If not for Rubinger, in fact, Goldman might still be anonymous. THE STORY is one that Rubinger has told several times. It starts with Time magazine which, in advance of a special issue for the year 2000, asked him to find the well-known photograph of David Ben-Gurion standing on his head at the beach. "I just started asking people, 'Do you know that picture?'" Rubinger recalls. "There wasn't a person in Israel who didn't know that picture. But when I asked who shot it, there wasn't a person in Israel who knew." If there was anyone who could have taken that picture, Rubinger realized, it had to have been Paul Goldman. The problem was, Goldman had died - blind and broke, Rubinger notes with a mixture of sadness and disgust - in 1986. Rubinger remembered, however, having taken a picture of Goldman's eight-year-old daughter, while she herself prepared to take a picture of Jordanian soldiers at the Mandelbaum Gate. "I remembered that her name was Medina, which is a very unusual name," Rubinger says. "And I remembered how she got that name. Goldman was with Ben-Gurion on November 29, 1947" - the day the United Nations voted to partition Palestine, creating a Jewish state, a medina - "when Goldman's wife gave birth to their little girl. Ben-Gurion said, 'You must name her Medina!' So he did!" Rubinger found Medina living with her mother, Dina, in very modest conditions in Kfar Saba. Medina pointed Rubinger to her father's photos and negatives, which were lying precariously in a bunch of shoe boxes in a leaky loft over the kitchen. "They were falling apart," says Rubinger. "But there was also a book that Goldman had written, with beautiful calligraphic handwriting identifying each photograph - date, event, negative number - in Hungarian." Goldman's widow, still alive at 94, was able to translate the book for Rubinger. "When I saw the name Ben-Gurion, I asked Goldman's wife in Yiddish, 'What is this?' So she read the inscription: 'Paula Ben-Gurion at the Sharon beach.' I found the envelope with the negatives - number 4410, I'll never forget the number - and, sure enough, there it was: a series of photos of Ben-Gurion doing the headstand. The whole process is there. How he starts, how he first goes down, how his legs go up and up... "Well," Rubinger continues, "I made prints. Goldman's widow got $250 from Time magazine, and she was very happy. But nothing happened for another few years." Spencer Partrich, a wealthy real estate developer from Detroit, was looking to buy rare photographs. When Rubinger told him about the Goldman archive, he says, Partrich's eyes lit up. "'Can I buy that archive?' he asked. I told him that rain had come in and that some of the negatives were falling apart... but he was very excited about the Ben-Gurion pictures. So I negotiated a price with Goldman's widow - I don't want to mention the amount, it would make her uncomfortable - and started to go through the material." From a total of some 40,000 negatives, Rubinger focused on about 1,000, and whittled that down to just over 100 pictures for an exhibit that would open at the Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv in September 2004. Since that original showing, the Goldman exhibit has gone around the United States, London, Vienna, Budapest - all paid for by Partrich. In June, the exhibit opened in Bangkok. This week, Rubinger flew to Singapore to open it there. "You wouldn't believe the response it gets," says Rubinger, "and not just from Jews." He relishes telling the story of the festive Bangkok opening last month, where the Egyptian ambassador took issue with the name of the exhibit. "Why did you call it 'Eretz Israel: Birth of a Nation'?" he quotes the ambassador as saying. "Your nation is much older than that. You should call it 'Birth of a State'!" IT'S CLEAR that Rubinger takes great pride in the Goldman exhibit. "There is a feeling," he says, "of saving a very precious archive from being lost." It is also clear, though, that this means something more for Rubinger. Studying and promoting the Goldman archive takes up more time and energy than his own work these days. Largely nonchalant about his own photos, Rubinger becomes energized when speaking of Goldman's. He is so protective that, after a guest on the London and Kirschenbaum news talk television show suggests that Goldman's photo of an Auschwitz survivor revealing a tattoo on her chest marking her as a German "field whore" is a fake, Rubinger calls up Motti Kirschenbaum to defend Goldman. "How dare he," Rubinger thunders into the phone in his office. "Listen, I have the negative right here. The negative! How could anyone suggest that Goldman faked anything?!" Why, I ask Rubinger, does he care so much? First, there are the photos themselves, which are outstanding, not so much for their artfulness as for their rarity. Who else has immortalized the first prime minister, not speaking before masses or surveying a battlefield, but standing on his head on a public beach? How many photographers can say they escorted Jews from the streets of Aden to the transit camps of Atlit? Who else can say "I was there" for so many momentous occasions in the early days of the state? "I can't understand how he did it," Rubinger says, shaking his head. "I know that at one time, in exchange for a camera, he bought a surplus military jeep from a British soldier just before the British left. And you know what? You find that Goldman was in the Negev, he was in the Galilee. He was at Deganya when the Syrian tank was stopped. When it happened! "It's incredible. No one else has a photo of Hagana soldiers removing the engine from an Egyptian Spitfire that had been shot down on the Herzliya beach... Hell, who even knows such a thing happened? But here is the photo!" Goldman's photos preserve for history a time when Israel's heroes were carving out their legends. It's as if, somehow, Goldman knew how important it would be someday to have a picture showing a young Ariel Sharon as a lieutenant-colonel in 1957. Or a portrait of Uri Avnery from 1950. Or the brit mila of Amos Schocken. Or a little boy, freshly arrived from Buchenwald, who would grow up to be chief rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau. "Uncanny," Rubinger exclaims, and shakes his head some more. GOLDMAN, A NATIVE of Budapest, arrived in Palestine in 1940, at the age of 40. After a stint with the British Army in North Africa, he took up photography. The period of his most important work, from 1943 to 1961, is covered in the exhibit. Rubinger shares something of a parallel biography with Goldman. The Vienna native arrived in Palestine as a 15-year-old in 1939. He too served in the British Army, with the Jewish Brigade, and took up photography after the war. "We overlapped, sort of," Rubinger explains. "I was at the beginning of my career when he was toward the end of his." But, according to Rubinger, there was no comparing the two at the time. "I looked up to him as a god, really," he says. When I ask how he would compare his own work to Goldman's, Rubinger answers - without false modesty - "I hope I am good as he was." Where the two diverge is in recognition, remuneration and public respect: Rubinger has gotten plenty, while Goldman, laboring during a time when wire services didn't credit their individual photographers, hardly received any at all. "No one knew him, really," Rubinger says. Increasing awareness about Goldman's work through the exhibit, he adds, "is like resurrecting a totally unknown photographer." Rubinger, who has seen eras change here and abroad, also wants the public to understand how special Goldman's work was in the context of the age. "When I first walked into a room where Ben-Gurion was, my knees were shaking," Rubinger says. "There were only three other cameras in the room. Nowadays, when you go into the prime minister's office, [it feels like] there are 1,300 cameras there. It isn't special. "Goldman, though, had incredible access. Look," Rubinger says, pointing to a picture, "here's Paula Ben-Gurion sweeping the floor in their home. Can you imagine? Paula must have really liked him!" She may have been in the minority on that count. Goldman "was a bitter, angry person," Rubinger recalls. "He was always fighting with somebody. But his photos, I have to say, didn't reflect that at all. He did have a sense of humor, too, though... and he was a real workaholic... in all, a true photojournalist." Many of Goldman's photos take on greater importance with decades of perspective. That's why, Rubinger believes, while there may be photographers like Goldman, there will likely never be another archive like the one he rescued from Medina's kitchen loft. "Even if there ever is one," he explains, "you probably won't know about it. Do you know why? Because now, with digital photography, you immediately delete whatever you don't want." Sometimes, though, the importance of some photos only becomes apparent much later - as in the case of the photo of little Yisrael Meir Lau. FOR RUBINGER as well, Goldman's work has become more important - in a very personal way - over time. "You know about my tragedy," he says suddenly, the words "my tragedy" hanging in the air. About seven years ago, Annie, Rubinger's wife of 54 years, died of cancer. A few years later, he met and fell in love with Ziona Spivak, a widow 15 years his junior. For Rubinger, the relationship was invigorating, wonderful, special - even "perfect." Then, at the very end of 2004, Spivak's Palestinian gardener came to her house to demand she loan him NIS 25,000. When Spivak refused, Muhammad Mahmoud Sabarna grabbed a knife from her kitchen and started stabbing her in the back. Seeing that she was still alive, he finished off the gruesome murder by slitting her throat. An hour later, Rubinger discovered his girlfriend's lifeless body. "I was totally devastated," says Rubinger, who left Spivak's home wailing in grief. Shortly thereafter Partrich called from Detroit, unaware of the murder and checking to see that Rubinger was ready for the impending opening of the Goldman exhibit there. Rubinger, emotionally shaken, couldn't imagine going - especially without Ziona - or being involved at all anymore. Seemingly, there was nothing left for him. "But I thought about it for a week," he says, after which "I knew that if I would let my feelings overwhelm me - I was 81 years old at the time - my body would simple collapse." So Rubinger threw himself into the Goldman project, traveling the world to promote the forgotten work of a dead colleague. It's what's keeping him alive today, he firmly believes. "There's an old Yiddish saying that God looks down and, if He sees someone superfluous, He says, 'I might as well have him up here.' So as long as I have something to do, maybe God will say, 'Well, that guy is still doing something.'" Now 83, Rubinger is a vibrant and, as Motti Kirschenbaum can attest, sometimes fiery character. He straddles the old world that Goldman ruled and the modern one that hardly knows that forgotten shutterbug. These days, he sits at an old, thick wooden desk and answers calls on his third-generation smart phone. "I have been working on my biography," he says, "with a writer in London. We've done almost the entire thing over Skype." "But," Rubinger adds with the exuberance of a young boy, "I have found something better now - Jajah!" He rises to close the door to the dank old laboratory where once he washed his own negatives by hand. Of all the photographs surrounding him, the one he keeps coming back to is Goldman's. Thumping a copy, he points to Ben-Gurion in his oversized swimming trunks, assuming his awkward stance. This is what the people will clamor for in Singapore, when Rubinger opens the exhibit in just a few days. "Ah!" he exclaims, eyes aglow. "Unbelievable!"


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