Portrayer of Israel’s soul

Photojournalist David Rubinger has followed the history of the state that he has documented since its creation.

David Rubinger (photo credit: Elisabeth Heinemann)
David Rubinger
(photo credit: Elisabeth Heinemann)
The 20-year-old Vienna-born youth, on leave from the British army in September 1945, stood on a Paris train platform, bidding farewell to his French girlfriend Claudette Vadrot. In the five previous years, he had escaped Hitler and made his way to Palestine. On that platform Vadrot gave him a parting gift, a hard to come by American-made Argus 35 millimeter camera.
“That was probably the most important moment of my life,” David Rubinger, today one of Israel’s best-known photojournalists, tells The Jerusalem Report. On the boat back home to Palestine, he was already snapping away.
By the time he returned to Europe, Rubinger had found his life’s calling. He had bought a Leica camera in Germany for 200 cigarettes and a kilo of coffee. Taking photos of the devastation caused by Allied bombing, he decided that he wanted to be a newspaper photographer. “I loved the idea. I loved taking photos.”
His father was a scrap metal dealer in Vienna, and his mother a housewife. He was 13 when Hitler’s armies invaded Austria in 1938. His father, who survived Dachau and Buchenwald concentration camps, managed to reach England, where he died in 1950. His mother perished in the Holocaust.
Back in Palestine after World War II , Rubinger, entitled to a job as an army veteran, found employment for 27 Palestinian pounds (nearly $5 then) a month as an assistant in a veterinary store. “I knew what to give horses if they had colic,” he recalled. Still, he wanted to be a newspaper photographer.
And so, living in Jerusalem, in the one room that was home to himself, his wife Annie, then six months pregnant, and her mother, he urged them at times to fall asleep, so that he could develop his photos in complete darkness. He sold the photos for tiny sums.
In 1946, after taking 9,000 photographs, Rubinger began to think long-term, organizing his nascent collection into an archive. It was a decision that later paid off handsomely. Once a week, Rubinger rode his motorbike from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, visiting newspaper offices to peddle his photos. In 1952, Uri Avnery, editor of the Haolam Hazeh magazine, offered him a full-time position as the newspaper’s photographer. Rubinger accepted.
At the same time, Rubinger developed a close relationship with the Jerusalem bureau of the Time-Life news organization, and covered the 1956 Suez Crisis and 1967 Six Day War. He became the bureau’s full-time staff photographer in 1971.
But being a competent photographer was not enough for Time-Life photo editors, and it soon would not be enough for Rubinger.
In the mid-1970s, Time Magazine photo editor Arnold Drapkin told Rubinger that photographers who took high-quality photos were “a dime a dozen.” The trick was to snap photos of political leaders and other public figures in unguarded, private moments, as these were far more likely to catch viewer interest. To be present at such moments, Drapkin observed, the photographer had to develop a relationship with the subject.
Snapping a photo of a political leader, then sending a copy of that photo to the subject, did wonders for Rubinger in developing such relationships. It took time, but the coziness paid off. Take, for example, when in May 1973, Life Magazine asked Rubinger for a photo of Israeli fighter planes over Jerusalem, just prior to Israel’s 25th anniversary celebrations.
Getting approval from the Israel Air Force to fly in one of four Phantoms, Rubinger produced a photo of three jet fighters over the Old City of Jerusalem, a major coup.
Years later in a café, a bald, middle-aged man came up to Rubinger and said, “You don’t remember me, do you?” The man was Rubinger’s Phantom pilot.
Working for a high-budget news organization helped Rubinger get access to news stories that others could only envy. On October 13, 1980, he rented a helicopter to fly from Jerusalem to Eilat, while he took photos of ships in port at Aqaba, Jordan, loaded with arms for Iraq during the Iraq-Iran war.
Eager to get the best possible angle, Rubinger convinced the pilot to open the door so that he would not have to shoot through the window.
He then dangled his legs outside. “When I’m in the air, I have no fear of heights,” Rubinger says. “Anyway, I had a seat belt. I couldn’t fall out.”
Time-Life’s seemingly unlimited budget gained Rubinger unprecedented access to Israel’s political leaders. When Israel’s thenprime minister, Menachem Begin, traveled to the United States in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Time-Life provided Rubinger with first-class air tickets so that he could sit near Begin during the flight. He was the only photojournalist in first class.
But, not wanting to embarrass Begin or invade his privacy, Rubinger promised he would not take photographs during the flight – not exactly a promise his editors wanted him to make. Still, to Rubinger a promise to a prime minister was a promise and would enable the photographer to maintain good relations with Begin once the plane had landed.
Nonetheless, Rubinger’s pledge once faced a severe challenge. In 1980, about to land in New York, Rubinger spotted Begin bending down to help his wife Aliza put her shoe back on. “I couldn’t resist,” the photographer admits. “I jumped up. I got two frames.
Begin gave me a look as if I had plunged a dagger into his belly.” “But Mr. Rubinger,” Aliza reminded him, “you promised you wouldn’t take that kind of picture.” Rubinger felt frustrated; he knew he had a marvelous, exclusive photo for Time’s next edition but he had, after all, promised to respect the Begins’ privacy.
He apologized to Aliza Begin. When Rubinger told Time’s Photo Editor Drapkin about the exclusive photo, the editor asked for the film, then in Rubinger’s pocket. He begged Drapkin not to use the photo. “It will ruin my relationship with Begin.“ Drapkin grudgingly agreed not to publish the image.
The following morning at Blair House in Washington, DC, Begin’s daughter Hassia tracked down Rubinger. “David, Mommy told me about the picture you took on the plane,” she said. “You must publish it. Daddy’s an idiot. He doesn’t understand anything about public relations. It’s a very human picture.”
But Time-Life never published the photo – Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel’s mass circulation newspaper, did so years later.
Access, especially exclusive access, was a critical tool in Rubinger’s work. After he prepared an exhibit of his photos for the Knesset to mark Israel’s 40th anniversary in 1988, the Knesset staff “rewarded” him by giving him access to the inner sanctum of political life: He became the only photographer granted the right to enter and take photos in the Knesset Members’ private dining room.
While not permitted to use photos he took in the dining room for Time-Life, he could still snap away, providing prints to politicians, thus deepening his personal connections with his subjects.
In addition to gaining sp ecial access with the politicians, Rubinger looked for ways to separate himself from the crowd of photographers who showed up at news events, so that he might snap a photo no one else had. One way, he learned, was to bring a four-foot ladder along with him to those events. The idea came in 1983 when he was on a special one-month assignment to cover the Reagan White House for Time-Life. “I suddenly saw photographers using ladders.
So I bought myself one of those. I still have it.
At that time it was a novelty in Israel.”
This unusual technique gained him some fame in the region. Arriving once in Alexandria, Egypt, to cover Israeli-Egyptian peace talks, he was greeted by an Egyptian police officer with the comment, “Abu Sulam [the father of the ladder] is here.”
Obsessed with politics, Rubinger constantly felt frustrated at the incompetence he found in the country’s politicians. “I have always been terribly liberal,” he says. “But in this country, if you want peace, you’re a dirty leftist. The fact is there is no peace. I don’t blame the Israelis or the Palestinians. With peace, we could have a thriving economy. But billions have been spent to get that peace and we still have no peace.”
Through his photographs, Rubinger comes off as the greatest portrayer of Israel’s soul. No photo of his exemplified that better than his world-famous shot of three Israeli soldiers at the Western Wall soon after the Israel Defense Forces captured the Old City of Jerusalem during the Six Day War. His most famous photo, it was also his most controversial.
Processing the roll of film upon returning home, he saw on it the photos showing three paratroopers standing in awe in front of the Western Wall. He had shot three consecutive frames of the scene in short succession – all three almost identical. In gratitude for the nearly unprecedented freedom of movement the ID F had given him during the war, he clipped off one of the three frames and presented it to the IDF Spokesman’s Office.
To Rubinger’s distress, however, the Spokesman’s Office gave the negative to the Government Press Office, whose officials started mass circulation of it for a small fee. As a result, in two of the many cases that agitated Rubinger, the Associated Press used the photo for a book cover and two other photographers passed the photo along to their agencies as if they had taken it. Much later, when the GPO tried to justify its mass distribution of the photo, it claimed that Rubinger had been conscripted – thus the photo did not belong to him. It took years for Rubinger to obtain a statement from the IDF Spokesman’s Office that he had not been in active service.
“I raised hell. I went mad,” says Rubinger.
Three weeks after the Six Day War, The Jerusalem Post published a front-page ad for Dubek cigarettes, using the photo with the tagline: “A Real Man Smokes Dubek.” Over the years Rubinger has fought numerous court cases trying to secure rights to the photo; some he won, some he lost.
Today, 45 years later, he notes the great irony: “In retrospect I say thank you to all the thieves who used the photo because if the photo hadn’t been so widely published, I would not have won the Israel Prize [awarded to him in 1997]. In the end, he made little money from the photo. In the 1990s, a court ordered Haaretz newspaper to pay him NI S 35,000 ($8,000) for corrupting the photo when a Haaretz graphic artist inserted the head of Yasser Arafat between the heads of the paratroopers.
The photo of the three soldiers at the Western Wall, however iconic, is not, in Rubinger’s opinion, among his best work.
“The composition is not bad but it has too many distracting elements. One guy’s face is cut off. What makes the picture acceptable is the helmet. Your eye focuses on the helmet.
To get the shot, I was lying on the floor not because I was tired, but I needed a low angle to get the stones of the Wailing Wall into the frame. The other focal point is the way these guys look up at the wall. The helmet reminds one of the tiredness the soldiers felt after fighting.”
That he took the photo most symbolic of Israel’s political and military struggle does not mean that Rubinger is a starry-eyed Zionist. Still, his love of Israel is anchored in one simple fact, “I like one thing about Israel: that what happened to my parents can’t happen to my children.” In uttering his next sentence he makes it clear he is joking.
“Everything else I dislike.” He is in awe of what Israelis have accomplished, he says.
“Look, it is unprecedented in history what 600,000 people built here.”
By 1993, nearing the age of 70, Rubinger began thinking about what to do with his personal photo archive – perhaps the greatest photo history of the State of Israel – after he stopped shooting for Time. “I had the luckiest idea I’ve ever had. All photographers, no matter how successful, no matter whether they have a great name, after they die, their work gets crated up in a box, and in the best of cases, goes into a very important museum down in the cellar and every 20 years maybe someone takes the archive and makes a memorial exhibit.”
Rub inger wanted his archives to be a living record of the State of Israel from its earliest moments. He had over the years taken the original index cards that formed his archive and began scanning several thousand photos onto his computer.
It took some time, but in 1999 he sought out Yedioth Ahronoth and asked its bosses if they would like to purchase the archive.
They invited him to show an example of the archives. Meeting with them, he typed into his computer the names “Ben-Gurion” and “Yom Kippur War.”
Rubinger also cleverly anticipated that they would ask him if he had photos of Yehuda Moses, Yedioth’s founder. “I showed them a photo of their founder at the age of four naked in a bathtub.” That sealed the deal. Asking $1 million for his archive, Rubinger accepted $750,000. As of today, Yedioth has scanned nearly 300,000 out of the 500,000 “Rubinger Archive” photos. “The archive was sold not because my pictures were better than those of other Israeli photographers,” he notes modestly. “It was sold mainly because my archive was organized.”
Rubinger has his own views on what makes a great photograph. A good photo, he says, is “where there is no distracting element. It is one in which there is not one element that need not be. Everything must be part of the photograph. The resolution must be good.
The lighting must be good. The viewer should feel some emotion, if possible.”
He points , by way of examp le, to a 1980 photo he took of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat whispering into Menachem Begin’s ear during a meeting in the Egyptian town of Aswan.
The two men had sequestered themselves in a hotel courtyard inaccessible to anyone else to talk peace. Because the two leaders were meeting privately, no photographer was permitted to view their chat. But Rubinger’s warm relationship with Brig. Gen. Ephraim Poran, Begin’s military aide, paid off. Poran offered the photographer the key to his hotel room, where Rubinger had a great view of the two leaders, allowing him to shoot away with a 300-millimeter lens.
Begin and Sadat had no idea that Rubinger was snapping away. To Rubinger, the photo he took was right on the mark because “there was nothing else in the photo – just the two men.” Today that photo hangs on the wall in his study in his home in the Old Katamon neighborhood of Jerusalem, along with photos he took of Golda Meir, Moshe Dayan, and a woman leaning over the grave of her son who had been killed in the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
To Israelis who know him – or who only came to know of him in recent years – David Rubinger is as much of a celebrity as any politician he photographed. As he walks from his home to a favorite neighborhood coffee house, as he does most days, people recognize him as the photographer who snapped their photos decades ago.
In 2006, he published his memoir “Israel Through My Lens” (with the image of the three soldiers at the Wall on the cover).
Finally, in 2009, at the age of 85, Rubinger retired from Time-Life. “You know, David,” Drapkin’s successor, Michele Stevenson, told him, “you have for the last two years been the oldest man on the Time masthead.”
Switching gears slightly, Rubinger began a new career, launching exhibits of his photos in Washington, Budapest, Singapore and a dozen other cities around the world. At each event, he walked the audience through his life story and explained the context of the exhibit photos. He plans to carry on with the exhibits.
Few caught Rubinger’s significance for the State of Israel and the world of photojournalism as well as Jim Kelly, Managing Editor of Time Magazine from 2001 to 2006. “As a photographer, David Rubinger has captured some of the most powerful images of his time. No one has done a better job of showing the history of Israel in all its glory and pain. The stories behind those photographs and the people he has met are utterly captivating, but as it turns out, no story is more fascinating – or more poignant – than that of his own life.”