A frame in our times: photojournalist David Rubinger ‘captured the truth’

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.

THEN-LABOR Party leader Yitzhak Rabin voting in his party’s leadership elections in the 1970s. (photo credit: DAVID RUBINGER)
THEN-LABOR Party leader Yitzhak Rabin voting in his party’s leadership elections in the 1970s.
(photo credit: DAVID RUBINGER)
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, 1947- 1997” 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.
 ISRAEL AIR FORCE pilots witness the arrival of new fighter jets. (David Rubinger) ISRAEL AIR FORCE pilots witness the arrival of new fighter jets. (David Rubinger)
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.”
YAMIT RESIDENTS clash with IDF soldiers during the evacuation of the city in 1982, as part of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. (David Rubinger)YAMIT RESIDENTS clash with IDF soldiers during the evacuation of the city in 1982, as part of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. (David Rubinger)
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 vests, which do little to cover up the subjects’ impressive physiques – and broad-brimmed straw hats. The two beachmen cast their gaze toward the far-off horizon, which, considering their profession, is only natural, but Raz provides added spectator value by pairing the photograph with the iconic timeless image of the paratroopers at the Western Wall who are also looking into the distant yonder.
The possibilities of Raz’s framed two-steps seem to be endless, thereby imbuing the visual dynamics with third-party dynamics. There is, for example, a touching intimate picture of then-foreign minister Golda Meir in her kitchen, complete with fundamentally domestic apron, next to a stirring shot of Black Panther leader Saadia Marciano making an impassioned address about discrimination against Sephardi Israelis. Visitors to the exhibition with some knowledge of the events of that stormy passage in Israel’s history, in the early 1970s, may know that Meir was not overly impressed with Marciano and Black Panthers, declaring simply, “They are not nice.”
Rubinger is one of only four photographers to have merited the Israel Prize. The other laureates are landscape photographer Peter Merom, Magnum photo agency member Micha Bar-Am and Alex Levac.
“I think the main thing that stands out about Rubinger is the respect he gave to the people he photographed,” says Levac. “He never played around with images. He never distorted things.”
That, Levac feels, is an all-pervading quality of Rubinger’s work.
“Even his action pictures, you can see the frame is very well ordered, and you can see by the style that he gave a lot of thought to what he wants to achieve. He may not have been spontaneous, but he was always very aesthetic.”
What Rubinger may have lacked in spontaneity he compensated for with his practiced eye for what he wanted to convey, and his ability to sift out anything extraneous to the core of the topic in hand. “He respected people. You know, photographers often tell people they’ll give them a copy later. I don’t know how many do but he always did.”
While lauding Rubinger, both as a person and as a fellow professional, Levac does not feel he shook up the local, or international, scene.
“He didn’t really change things. He was a very classic photographer.”
Then again, he was always where it mattered.
“David was a main-event photographer. He never photographed in the margins. He worked in the news field, for Time magazine and The Jerusalem Post. He also had a lot of connections, and he was always in the right place at the right time. Don’t forget, he was the official Knesset photographer.”
That, coupled with his personal etiquette, helped to open doors and keep them open to him and his cameras. “He was always polite and he cared about his attire,” Levac continues. “He was always elegant and he was a true professional. You can see that in his work.”
Then again, Rubinger was not without his faults.
“He went for the picture of Rabbi Goren instead of paratroopers at the Western Wall, because he had a journalist mentality,” Levac observes. “His wife realized which was the better frame, and that Rabbi Goren wasn’t really part of the core story.”
It is hard to imagine our collective narrative without Rubinger’s work.
“He documented the country right from the very beginning,” says Levac. “He was our national photographer.
“David Rubinger/I Captured the Truth, 1947-1997” is on display at the Eretz Israel Museum until December 31. For more information: www.eretzmuseum.org.il