Remembering David Rubinger...

... who captured Israel’s history through the lens of his camera.

David Rubinger at home, flanked by some of his most iconic photos – including, of course, the June 7, 1967, shot of the three paratroopers at the newly liberated Western Wall (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
David Rubinger at home, flanked by some of his most iconic photos – including, of course, the June 7, 1967, shot of the three paratroopers at the newly liberated Western Wall
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Familiarity does not always breed contempt, but it sometimes dulls our senses so that we don’t recognize the unique or special qualities of people in our midst. Awareness dawns too late, after the familiar person dies and is eulogized.
If eulogies are indeed a measure of the man, legendary photojournalist David Rubinger, who died last week at age 92, was a giant who for almost half a century was a photographer for Time magazine.
Reports of his death quickly appeared on the websites of Time, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, Paris Match, Deutsche Welle and many others worldwide.
Though widely published and an Israel Prize laureate, he was a essentially a modest man who didn’t blow his own trumpet, yet at the same time, understanding journalists’ need for a good story, never refused a request to be interviewed.
It is both sad and ironic that he died this year – the 50th anniversary year of the victory of Israeli paratroopers who during the Six Day War, reunited Jerusalem and reclaimed the Western Wall, the holiest of Jewish sites. This year is also the 40th anniversary year of the historic visit to Jerusalem by Egyptian president Anwar Sadat. Rubinger took many photographs of Sadat in intimate conversation with prime minister Menachem Begin, laughing with Golda Meir in the Knesset and chatting with various Israeli dignitaries.
Top-notch professional that he was, Rubinger could still be betrayed sometimes by either his camera or his memory. In the pre-digital era, photographers used rolls of film and walked around with many such rolls in their pockets. Sometimes they forgot to use them and photographed with an empty camera; sometimes the camera didn’t work as it should. In this respect, Rubinger was like any other photographer.
He liked to tell the story about a meeting between Begin and Sadat in Ismailia. Hundreds of photographers and journalists from around the world converged to report on and photograph the meeting.
Sadat suddenly emerged before the crowd, entered his chauffeur-driven car and called out to Begin to join him. Begin got into the car and it drove off. Begin’s speechwriter, Yehuda Avner, who was also present, ran to his own car and called to Rubinger to come with him. They managed to tail Sadat’s car for a few kilometers along the Suez Canal until it suddenly stopped.
There were no security guards. They had been left behind when Sadat’s car had driven off from Ismailia.
Rubinger ran across to Sadat’s car, camera already poised. The window was down and Sadat was explaining to Begin how he had crossed the Suez Canal during the Yom Kippur War of 1973, which the Egyptians refer to as the October War. Rubinger kept shooting nonstop, grateful for the opportunity to shoot so many close-ups. After Sadat finished his explanation, he and Begin drove away. Rubinger began to rewind the film in his camera. The rewinding process was too easy.
Rubinger knew instinctively that something was wrong, but he had experienced a few miracles over the years, and perhaps there was another one in store. He had the film flown to New York, but when it was processed at Time headquarters, it was found to be empty.
Born in Vienna, Rubinger came as a teenager to what was then Palestine, almost literally on the eve of World War II. As soon as he turned 18, he joined the Jewish Brigade of the British Army and spent time in Europe fighting the Nazis. He was also involved in liberating the death camps.
In 1946, after the war, he settled in Jerusalem with his bride Anni, who was his cousin and a death-camp survivor. Theirs had started off as a fictitious marriage to enable her to leave Europe, but the marriage lasted for 54 years until her death in 2000.
Before joining Time Life, Rubinger had worked as a freelance photographer, zooming around Jerusalem on his motorcycle, and from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv newspaper offices with photographs that he had developed in the makeshift darkroom of the bathroom in his tiny apartment. He also photographed for a range of organizations and institutions, such as the United Israel Appeal and Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund.
In 1951, he was offered the job of staff photographer at the now-defunct scandal magazine Ha’olam Hazeh, whose editor, Uri Avnery, recognized his talent and his potential. Before that, no other Israeli publication had a staff photographer, and Rubinger could also write.
Before long, because of the quality of his photographs and subject matter, which had somehow eluded his rivals, Rubinger came to the attention of Time Life, whose photo editor Arnold Drapkin told him after he’d been photographing for Time for several years that there were plenty of other photographers who could supply the magazine with high quality photos. What he wanted were candid photos of political leaders and other public figures. To photograph such people in unguarded moments, Drapkin told Rubinger, he had to develop a relationship of trust with his subjects.
Rubinger’s friendly personality, coupled with his discretion, earned him access to people and places that were off-limits to most other media personnel. Even before Drapkin had told him what photos he wanted in future, Rubinger had begun to develop relationships.
Rubinger was frequently regarded as David Ben-Gurion’s personal photographer, but he was in fact every prime minister’s personal photographer – though not employed as such. Even though his extreme left-wing views were widely known, he was trusted by everyone because he was discreet and spent more time focusing on his pictures than on eavesdropping. Ariel Sharon frequently invited him to the Sycamore Ranch, which for a leftist like Rubinger was like Daniel walking into the lion’s den – but no one objected to his presence and he happily clicked away.
One of his most famous photographs, other than the iconic shot of the paratroopers at the Western Wall in June 1967, is the photograph he took in the plane en route to the US when Menachem Begin bent down to strap his wife Aliza’s shoe.
The photograph was not published immediately, because Begin had objected, but when one of Begin’s daughters insisted on its publication, it elicited a great deal of warmth towards the prime minister because it showed such a human side of his character and emphasized the loving relationship he had with his wife.
As for the iconic paratrooper photograph, Rubinger lay on the ground to take it, because he need the angle of three tired but awestruck soldiers looking up at the stones. For many years after that, various organizations and publications asked Rubinger and the three soldiers, Zion Karasenti, Yitzhak Yifat and Haim Oshri, to return to the Western Wall to reenact the scene. The last time that happened four or five years ago, Rubinger needed help getting up from the ground, because he was no longer sufficiently agile to do so unaided.
Because he was so frequently in the Knesset photographing ministers and legislators, he was asked to prepare an exhibition in the Knesset in celebration of Israel’s 40th anniversary. Some of those photographs are still on view. The exhibition opened the door of the Knesset members’ private dining room for him. He was the only photographer permitted to enter and take photos. He later gave his subjects some of the photographs, which helped to strengthen his relationship with them.
At one stage, he was also the photo editor of The Jerusalem Post and in later life over the years gave several interviews to the paper and its subsidiaries.
As much a yekke in his soul as he was a photographer, Rubinger liked to do things in an orderly fashion. His archives, consisting of more than half a million photos depicting the history of the state, were meticulously filed by subject matter and date.
Realizing that there was no point in leaving his archives to a museum or the Zionist or State archives, where they would be boxed and sometimes a few photos would be removed for display at special anniversaries, Rubinger decided to sell them to Yediot Aharonot, which at the time had the largest readership in the country. It took six years for the sale to be finalized.
Rubinger had wanted $1 million, but eventually settled for $750,000. Yediot frequently publishes photos from the collection, and on the Sunday after Rubinger’s death published a whole supplement under the heading “The Man Who Was There.”
The supplement includes wartime photographs, Yitzhak and Leah Rabin having breakfast, David and Paula Ben-Gurion at the entrance to their hut in Sde Boker; Golda Meir washing dishes in her kitchen and another of her spoon-feeding an immigrant child; Begin adjusting his wife’s shoe; Shimon Peres in shorts, standing on a ladder to get some books from the top shelf of his library; actress Elizabeth Taylor in Jerusalem’s Old City; Frank Sinatra with a group of Israeli soldiers; Menachem Golan on the set of Delta Force; Marc Chagall in the Knesset and many more personalities and events.
Rubinger may have been spurred to some extent by the fate of works by some of his predecessors, including Paul Goldman, whose photographs Rubinger rescued by chance. Toward the end of the last century, Time wanted a photograph of Ben-Gurion standing on his head on the beach. Rubinger hadn’t taken that photo and went in search of it. Goldman, a Hungarian, had come to British Mandate Palestine in 1940 and had befriended people like Ben-Gurion, Chaim Weizmann and Ariel Sharon, taking numerous photographs of them and of other pre-state personalities.
He also continued to photograph after the founding of the state, but when he died toward the end of 1986, his daughter took all his boxes of negatives and stored them in her kitchen cabinets.
Goldman, like Rubinger, kept meticulous records, and eventually, after a long search, Rubinger found in Goldman’s notebooks a record of the negative that he was looking for, but it was no longer in Israel. Goldman’s daughter had sold off part of the collection to an American businessman who was a collector of historic Israeli photos. Coincidentally, he and Rubinger had a mutual friend who introduced them to each other. Rubinger found the photo of Ben-Gurion and many other rare photographs, and organized a Goldman memorial exhibition at the Eretz Israel Museum. The exhibition was later shown abroad.
In November 2015, Ari Rath, the fabled former co-editor in chief of The Jerusalem Post came to visit the current offices of the paper, and then-editor in chief Steve Linde, remembering that both Rath and Rubinger had come as adolescents to British Mandate Palestine invited Rubinger to come as well so that they could reminisce together. It was one of their final meetings. Rath, who was six months younger than Rubinger, died in January this year. Rubinger, who couldn’t shake off a bad cold, regretted his inability to go to the funeral. Less than two months later, relatives, friends and admirers attended Rubinger’s funeral at the Har Hamenuhot cemetery in Givat Shaul.
Photojournalist Alex Levac, a fellow Israel Prize laureate who had known Rubinger for some 40 years, said at the funeral that Rubinger was always willing to share his professional know-how and encouraged and praised the work of other photographers. Rubinger had complimented Levac several times, telling him that he was a true photographer, because he didn’t just snap someone or something, but put thought into what he was doing. Levac’s response had been “I learned it from you.”