Photographic memories

Zooming in on Israel Prize laureate David Rubinger's picturesque personal and professional history.

david rubinger 88 298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
david rubinger 88 298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Luck, skill and building relationships are what David Rubinger attributes to his success as a news photographer. Luck, he claims, is what led him to his first small camera and subsequent illustrious career. Skill, he says, is the ability to use that luck. As for relationship-building: A pearl of wisdom from an editor shaped the way he pursued his picture-taking - spending days with a subject before getting the good shots. This is a policy, he says, which paid off, big-time. Photography buffs the world over look to Rubinger's pictures, which appeared for decades in Time-Life, as examples of mastery; laymen admire them as gems of Zionist history - the pictorial documentation of the development of the state, from its early days to the present. There is no Israeli leader whose positive essence Rubinger hasn't captured on a negative. Nor is there a soul among us who isn't familiar with his most famous photo of all: three soldiers at the Western Wall of Jerusalem, minutes after its liberation during the Six Day War in 1967. At 82, the Vienna-born virtuoso of the lens, who settled in Palestine in 1939, has now shifted the focus of his professional life - if not of his beloved Leica - to showing and selling signed copies of his acclaimed works (in exhibitions in the United States, England and Austria); writing a column for the Hebrew daily Yediot Aharonot (to which he sold his archive); giving lectures; and releasing an autobiography. These endeavors are more than merely the activities of a literally and figuratively war-weary retiree. According to Rubinger, they are what rescued him from the depths of despair, following a trauma he feared would cause his body to "follow his mind" - the brutal murder of the lady he loved. In an hour-long interview at his Jerusalem home, Rubinger speaks candidly about his passions for his profession and for Ziona Spivak, the "wonderful, wonderful woman" with whom he spent "the happiest two and a half years of [his] life" - the woman he found dead on the floor of her kitchen, with her throat slit, exactly two years ago this week. Rubinger also makes a point of pausing to praise former prime minister Ariel Sharon - in spite of his always having been at ideological odds with "the only [politician] who called [him] the morning after Ziona was killed." Then, recounts Rubinger wistfully, "a few weeks later, I was sitting at the Knesset, and Sharon's spokesman approached to tell me that the prime minister had requested I join him. When I did, Sharon asked me how I was overcoming my tragedy. I said to him, 'Arik, you know where I stand politically, and yet you are so nice to me.' And he said, 'What does that have to do with anything?' In that sense, he was really the last Palmahnik. Friends before politics. That's what made him unique. Poor man. He should have died after that stroke." You are now extensively exhibiting - and selling - your work. Does this mean you are photographing less? Much less. I used to be unable to sit tight when I heard a siren. Now it doesn't affect me. I didn't even go up North for the Lebanon debacle [during the war this summer]. I reached a point where I realized that you become pathetic and ridiculous if you compete with 19-year-olds. Even if your photographs surpass theirs in quality? If you shoot pictures for 60 years, you're bound to come up with something good. That's modest of you. It's not modesty. I'm not the greatest photographer in the world. But I was lucky. In every profession you need luck. Some talent. You have to be a little bit above average in order to use that luck. What form did this "luck" take? The way I became a photographer was luck. During World War II, I served in the Jewish Brigade of the British army. On the anniversary of the liberation of Paris in May 1945 - the liberation was in 1944 - we were stationed in Belgium. Another guy and I got tickets to the Paris opera on our leave. We came by train. When we reached the opera house, the first act had already begun, and they wouldn't let us in until it was over. So we went around the corner to a bar. In the bar there were two girls, one named Jeanette and one Claudette. Claudette and I became very close friends. A couple of months later, I was ordered back to Palestine, and she came to the railway station to give me a little present. It was a tiny 35-millimeter Argus camera. I had never had a camera in my life - not even a Brownie box, as had every child who came from a real Jewish Eastern-European family. And I liked what the camera did. There's a picture of Claudette in my [soon-to-be-released] biography [Sixty Years Behind the Lens, by Ruth Corman, Abbeville Publishers]. When did you start to look at objects or subjects you were photographing with an eye for the unusual? Not the unusual, the newsy. From the very beginning, I knew I wanted to be a news photographer. When I was released from the army, I got a job with the British Mandatory government. I didn't like it. So I started taking pictures. The first pictures I sold to neighbors for - I think - six piasters apiece. There was a curfew in Jerusalem imposed by the British, and I was living within the curfew area, where people were handing bread over the barbed wire to each other. Those were the kind of pictures I sold at the time, first to neighbors and later on to some local papers. Then, in 1951, Uri Avnery [the editor] of [the Hebrew news weekly] Haolam Hazeh discovered me and hired me as a staff photographer. That was the beginning of my career. I had my first two pictures in Time magazine in April 1954. Would you describe news photography a skill or an art? Skill, luck and... let me put it this way: One of the most important early influences on me was my picture editor at Time, Arnold Drapkin. At a gathering of photographers in New York, he said, "Guys, sharp pictures are a dime a dozen. I need photographers who make a connection with people." Since then, I've always worked on having a human relationship with my subjects. To do this, sometimes you spend days with someone without shooting a picture - making them comfortable; making them feel you're not a photographer. That's when you get your best pictures. I once did a story with Golda Meir for Life. It took about 11 days. I learned something very important during those days: In the beginning, they cooperate. Because they agreed to appear in Life. That's when you get the most posed pictures. After a while, because you get under their feet and you pester them, they want to get rid of you. That's when they're mad at you. But then comes a stage when they say, "Well, I've agreed to this; I can't do anything about it." That's when they totally disregard you. And that's when you get your pictures. One of the pictures I really cherish was taken during that assignment - of Golda feeding her grandson. I sat practically underneath the table shooting upwards. Now, you can't do that on the first day [of an assignment]. That's what my editor had meant about building up a relationship. But Time was always ready to pay for these relationships. For example, Menachem and Aliza Begin always flew to the United States on El Al, first class. The rest of his entourage - including his daughter - sat in coach. But Time always made sure that I had a seat in first class, to build up a relationship. Eleven hours with the prime minister will do that. And it pays off, because, for example, when Begin had a birthday, it was accepted that no press or photographers were allowed. But Mrs. Begin picked up the phone and invited me personally. This no longer happens, because it costs too much money. The bean-counters don't think in terms of relationships. They say, "What? Spend $10,000-$12,000 to fly David Rubinger over from Jerusalem with the prime minister? What the hell for? We have three photographers in Washington." But not all of your photographs are of people you spent time with. Some of your most famous ones are of strangers. That's especially true of war pictures, or those taken of immigrants. Immigration always fascinated me. A few years ago [producer] Micha Shagrir and I did a documentary, locating people whose pictures I had taken in the '50s and '60s and seeing where they are now. That film was true Zionism. One of the photos was of a family of immigrants living in a tent. (It's a picture that's in my exhibit.) It showed a little girl next to a man lying on a bed, living in real poverty. When we found them again [decades later], they had a grocery store in Petah Tikva. The little girl was now an old woman - married to the guy who was lying on the bed. By now they had grandchildren. We showed her the picture, and when she showed it to her grandchildren, one of them said, "Oh, you were so poor!" And she said, "No, I wasn't! I was happy!" And the grandchild said, "Yeah, but you lived in a tent with no television." Did it ever interest you to switch from stills photography to film? Filming and stills photography are two entirely different things, and anybody who tries to do both sins against both. When you make a film, you must have a script. You must follow it. You must build a story in your mind. You must create the event - even in a documentary. If you do that in stills photography, you are dictating the picture, instead of letting the event dictate the picture. The picture is posed. If you're honest in stills photography, you don't create the situation. I know that some photographers do that. When they do it, does it make for bad photographs? No, sometimes they're good photographs, but you sense somewhere that they're posed. I remember one French photographer who, during the intifada, found a little boy throwing stones with a slingshot, and he turned the boy around so the light would be better on his face. The picture was good. But I know that it was a lie. Do you have something in common with other stills photographers - other than luck? A mad dedication to the profession. And a bit of stupidity. You go into life-threatening situations, and for what - a picture? Does that kind of danger give you some kind of high? Speaking for myself, I've always been scared in such situations. But, as is the case with all heroes, shame drives you. You know, during the Yom Kippur War - when I was already nearly 50 years old - I was with some young kids [members of the press] accompanying [Col.] Yossi Peled's 20th Armored Brigade [in the Northern Command]. I felt like an idiot with all those 19-year-olds. But I kept up the appearance of bravery, which gave them confidence. There was a young kid from Army Radio with a microphone, and when we got into a Syrian trap, he froze. I shouted at him, "If you don't start recording now, you'll never be a journalist!" That's when he started working. I was scared myself - and I didn't get any decent shots. You don't get decent shots on the front. Why is that? Look, the days when people fought with bayonets - and you could get close enough to get a good picture - are over. But anyway, nobody ever did that, because there was no photography at the time. Battles now involve distance. Armored battles take place over a mile or two. You don't even see the other tank by the time it's hit. You don't really shoot the war; you shoot the results of the war. Dead people. Burning tanks. The wounded. That's what makes war pictures. A tank firing a shell that hits another tank about two miles away is no photograph. Do you take your camera everywhere you go? Yes. It's a question of superstition. In 1947, before I was a professional photographer, I was walking home from work one day, and as I passed by the [now defunct] Edison cinema, the IZL blew up the British Department of Labor. And there I was without a camera! I ran home, but by the time I returned, all that was there was dust and rubble. Since then - or at least I always say that it's since then - I have always gone around with a camera. Do you have a special brand of camera you're attached to? Leica, Leica, Leica [he says lovingly, in a hushed tone]. It's part of me and always has been. I bought my first Leica in Germany in 1946, when I was still in the army, for 200 cigarettes and a kilo of coffee. That was after Claudette gave you your first camera. Yes, the little Argus. I wish I knew what I'd done with it. But I had an interesting experience a year or two ago. I told the story of how I became a photographer to a group of youngsters on the birthright program. A couple of months later, they invited me out to dinner. There they gave me a gift: an old Argus they had found on e-bay. I have it on my shelf. Did being a news photographer cause problems in your marriage? Oh, the marriage suffered terribly. I was a lousy husband and a lousy father. I was married to Annie for 54 years. She was the only one who supported my decision to leave my job with the British government - where I earned 27 pounds a month - to earn 5-6 pounds a month as a photographer. The rest of the family and everybody else told me I was crazy and irresponsible, because we already had a child to support - everybody except Annie. She stood by me. And I didn't repay her nicely because, you know, my career was so "Time magazine! Life magazine! Leave me alone now, I'm busy!" Perhaps it is in the nature of the profession. Well, most of my colleagues are either divorced or married two or three times. The career overshadows everything else. Yet you stayed married to one woman all those years. Yeah, well, maybe it was inertia. Maybe laziness. Having a home base. It was a marriage like all marriages. Happy moments, unhappy moments, quarrels. There are no perfect marriages. If I see one, I say that behind that scene, there's a hell somewhere. Speaking of hell, this week marks two years since your girlfriend, Ziona Spivak, was murdered by her Arab gardener. Would you like to talk about that? That relationship was a fabulous thing that doesn't happen to many people... at the age of 78, to find something so special! I'd been widowed for over two years. She'd been widowed for six. We had never met, though we lived very close to one another. She used to say, "Of course I never met you - you're so lazy, you're always in your car; you never walk anywhere." Where and how did you meet? At a wedding. I took some pictures, and she was among the people photographed. A couple of weeks later, I was walking down the street - you see, I do walk occasionally - and she said, "David, you took my picture." I said, "Yes, of course. Why didn't you call me?" And she said, "I never call men." That same afternoon, we had coffee. It was a relationship that can only be described as perfect. We had much in common. Another unusual thing was that my children loved her and her children loved me. Early in life, when you get married, you try to shape the other person in your image. Every woman wants her husband to be like her, and every man wants his wife to be like him. At my age, that's no longer the case. You realize she's a different person from you. You're forgiving, tolerant. Things that would have driven you up the wall when you were younger, suddenly make you smile. Ziona used to tell me, "You drive like a madman!" And I used to say, "Ziona, be careful. Tomorrow morning, I'm taking this car into the garage to have the seat next to me turned around, so you'll be facing the other direction." We always kept our own homes. One evening we were at her house, and she said, "You know, David, when one of us wants to be alone, neither of us wants to say so, for fear of hurting the other's feelings." So I took a piece of paper and tore it apart, and told her that each of us should write down what we felt like doing that evening. So, we each wrote something, and it turned out that each of us had written that we wanted to be alone that night. She was a wonderful, wonderful woman. Those were the happiest two and a half years of my life. Not a single angry word during all that time. Not one. And we travelled to so many places together - to the States, England, France, Austria, Vietnam, Cambodia... How does one get over that kind of tragedy? Well...[he considers the question, then begins reminiscing.] The night before her murder, we had a party celebrating her son's first wedding anniversary, and I slept over at her house. When I got up in the morning, I brought her coffee to bed - I always did that. And she said, "David, come back at 1 o'clock [for lunch]; there's so much food left over from last night." When I returned at 1, I couldn't get in. I didn't have a key to her house; she had a key to mine, because I was the old one [and might need checking on in case of emergency]. She was young [67], so what could happen to her? I contacted her daughter-in-law- who was six months pregnant - and we both entered the house, where we found her there lying on the floor with her throat slit. I was afraid that the shock would cause her daughter-in-law to miscarry. She now has a beautiful child whom I love. Anyway, I rushed out of the house screaming, and sat down on the sidewalk, clutching my head. The next day, a photo of me doing that appeared in the paper, so a photographer had captured it, but I hadn't been aware of his presence. Of course, I was the first suspect. I had touched her face, so I had blood on my hands. A guy from Magen David Adom tried helping me wipe it off, and a policeman yelled at him for removing evidence. Anyway, I had to go home and change my clothes, and give the police the ones I was wearing. I understood them. They had to do their job. Anyway, it became clear soon after who the murderer was. How does one get over it, you ask? The truth is that I thought my life had ended. After a thing like this, I thought, what else can there be? There can't be anything to look forward to after that. And the Goldman exhibit - another exhibit of mine, named after a photographer who died - was supposed to open a few weeks hence in Detroit. Ziona and I already had plane tickets, business class, to the States. She had been looking so forward to that. So I called the guy who owns the collection to tell him what had happened and that I wasn't coming. He told me to call him back in about a week, after thinking about it some more. And I realized that if I let my mindset of total dejection and futility dominate me, my body would follow suit in a very short time. That's when I decided, after a week or two, to go. Since then, I've been abroad several times for my exhibits. It is work that has kept me going, and rescued me from that state of mind. Did you know the man who committed the murder? I hadn't met him, but Ziona used to tell me, "Oh, Muhammad was here again; his kids are sick, and he has no work. But I don't want him as a gardener, because he's no good. So I gave him NIS 200." I said, "Ziona, what do you mean, you gave him NIS 200?" She said, "I had to; he's a poor guy." According to his confession, he came that day and asked her for NIS 25,000. And when she told him no, he took a knife from the kitchen and slit her throat. Did this affect your view of the Palestinians? Nah. This guy was a simple laborer. I saw him in court. I saw the reenactment - the police showed it to us. I didn't want to see it, but Ziona's son, Amos, said he must see it, so I went with him. It was hard to watch [the murderer] telling about how the first knife broke, and how he took another knife... ach... it was terrible. And don't forget: From childhood, he has seen people slaughtering sheep. If my child or grandchild or great-grandchild were to see somebody cutting the throat of a sheep, he'd faint. For an Arab farmer's child, all that blood is normal. Also he didn't come to kill her. He didn't bring a knife with him. He was definitely not nationalistically motivated. He was too stupid and too simple to commit an ideological act. You know something? I've given it a lot of thought and reached the conclusion that there is really no [appropriate] punishment for murder. A death sentence is the easiest one for the murderer. A life sentence means nothing. He sits in a cell. He eats, dreams, watches TV. No, the only true punishment for murder is not possible [to implement] in modern times. The Bible has the answer: The Mark of Cain - a sign on your forehead that you're a murderer. Can you imagine living in society and being absolutely invisible and ostracized? As though you're air? Nobody would talk to you. Nobody would look at you. They would just walk through you, as if they didn't see you. That is a punishment. Becoming non-existent. You're alive, but you're dead. You mentioned having been photographed while sitting on the sidewalk clutching your head. There have been many complaints against news photographers who witness tragedies and, rather than offering assistance, continue clicking away. Should a photographer remain neutral and keep working when faced with a situation that involves suffering? It's a hard question. I'll give you an example from my own experience. A Swedish colonel from the United Nations was killed on Mount Scopus when it was still No Man's Land before '67. I was supposed to cover his burial. I was walking backwards in front of the funeral procession, and suddenly his widow sprang forth and started beating me with her fists. I couldn't react. I just stood there like a golem. Did that mean I didn't have to complete my assignment? I had to. What about after a terrorist attack? Would you take pictures, or help victims off a bus? If my help were needed, I don't think I would shoot pictures first. I don't know; I've never been faced with that particular dilemma. I hope I would first help and then photograph. I assume that when you found Ziona, you didn't photograph her. No, no, no. I was a mental wreck at that moment, screaming like a madman. No, when it's something in your own life, that's different. Have you ever taken a picture that you thought was amazing when you shot it, only to discover, after developing it, that it wasn't anything special? Very often. When you take a picture, you're putting so much of your own emotion into it, and you think the picture shows what you felt at the time. In 1956, I was at [Kibbutz] Ramat Rahel, when a Jordanian soldier opened fire on a group of archeologists. Four people were killed right around me. Others started running down the steps of the water tower. I took pictures of them, and I was so sure that these were panicky pictures. Later, everybody looked at them and said, "Eh, these are just people running down steps." I tried to tell them they were wrong. But that's why a photographer - like a writer - is his own worst editor. Have you also had the opposite experience? When you thought a photo you took was nothing special, yet others thought it was great? My most famous picture [of the soldiers after the liberation of Jerusalem in the Six Day War] is one I think of as mediocre. The only good thing I can say about it is that because the distance from the Wall to the houses was so small, I was lying down to get a little bit more of the [Western] Wall, and I shot upwards, which probably makes it a more interesting shot. But as a picture [he shrugs]? When I came home that night, I processed the film and showed it to my wife, pointing out a picture of Rabbi Goren on the shoulders of soldiers blowing the shofar. But my wife admired the other one. So, I argued with her: "But that's just three soldiers! This is the Israeli army's chief rabbi blowing the shofar at the Wall!" I gave the negative of the photo of the three soldiers to the army. The army then gave it to the Government Press Office. And the Government Press Office started selling it for two liras. Everybody bought it; everybody printed it. I was mad for a while. Later, I thanked all the thieves. But I did blow my top when it appeared on the front page of The Jerusalem Post [a few weeks after the war] as an ad for Dubek cigarettes. Then I started suing. But in the final analysis, if it hadn't been stolen, it would have appeared in Life magazine over a half a page, and that would have been the end of it. Were you surprised when you won the Israel Prize? Oh yes. I remember I was in my car, and my phone rang. Someone said that Education Minister Zevulun Hammer wanted to speak to me. So, I tried to think whether I'd taken a photo of him or something. He came on the line and congratulated me. I got out of the car and sat on the sidewalk. I was stunned. I had had no idea this was about to happen. To this day, the Israel Prize is something I cherish. I don't advertise this to everybody, but I admit I'm quite proud of it... why should I lie?