My Word: A fresh perspective

Perspective, unlike batteries, cannot run out and its creative use can help you see beauty in the mundane.

David Rubinger with Chaim Collins 390 (photo credit: Steve Linde)
David Rubinger with Chaim Collins 390
(photo credit: Steve Linde)
Many years ago I asked photographer David Rubinger what advice he could best offer amateurs. Rubinger, whose photo of the IDF paratroopers at the Western Wall in the Six Day War became an icon, did not hesitate for a second. “Always leave enough film for one more picture,” he said. “Otherwise, you’ll find that just as you have seen the perfect shot you’ll have to change the film, and you’ll miss it.”
It wasn’t exactly the sort of wisdom I had expected the world-renowned photographer to share with me and, to my shame – and sorrow – I didn’t always heed him. At the 1994 signing of the peace treaty between Israel and Jordan, I snapped happily away, catching shot after shot of the leaders, their wives, and the flags waving in the desert surroundings.
The highlight of the ceremony was the release of hundreds of balloons in the colors of the flags of the two countries. And then it happened. As the balloons began to soar – as if swept up by the invisible but strongly felt wave of optimism – my film ran out. I have pictures of the balloons hovering just above head height, but in my photo album the symbol of the peace never really took off.
Since the age of camera film has long passed (and the peace accord, also, is not what it once was), I tried to adapt the advice to the digital age and always carry spare batteries in my camera case. Nonetheless, I know there is still much to learn when it comes to my photography skills.
Recently, I met Rubinger in the Jerusalem Post photo archives, where my father, a keen amateur photographer, works. I reminded him of his original advice. Rubinger didn’t remember sharing it with me but, enthusiastic and charming as ever, he was willing to give both me and my father another suggestion: “It’s all a matter of perspective,” he said. “You have to try to catch a different angle, a different way of looking at things – perhaps from above or maybe by lying down.” After all, the word “pedestrian,” is used to mean unimaginative or boring because it is something being seen at eye level by the man walking down the street, he pointed out.
This seems to me much better advice, relevant not just to my attempts to improve my photos despite the obstacles of Murphy’s Law, but also in other walks of life. Perspective, unlike batteries, cannot run out and its creative use can help you see beauty in the mundane. Translating this from the world of photo-journalism to ordinary life, I figure it means that it’s up to us to find the interesting angles. Sometimes you have to concentrate on the fuller picture; other times it’s best to focus on the more accessible details.
Rubinger’s principle is, of course, not the only valuable piece of advice I have received over the years at the paper.
One of the best lessons in life I learned came from the Post’s late art critic and cartoonist Meir Ronnen.
It followed an uncharacteristic moment of impulse spending. I was covering an art auction at a charity event for the paper. Several items came and went (“going once, going twice”), with no haggling over the asking price. And then I saw it. A painting called The Blue Garden that beckoned me to buy it. It was the first time I had ever attended an auction, and in those pre-eBay days, competing over the price of an item had a certain glamour. I made a bid. So did “the man at the back.” I bid a bit higher. So did the man at the back. I raised the price. The man at the back did not raise his hand. He might have raised an eyebrow in my direction, but it was too late for me to do anything about it. The painting was mine.
I struggled to get it into a taxi, realizing it was much bigger than I had thought when I’d seen it in the huge hotel banquet hall. It seemed even bigger when I had to figure out where to hang it in my tiny studio apartment.
I tossed and turned all night with the painting propped against the end of my sofa bed.
The next morning there it was: big, blue and beautiful. My unexpected, secret garden.
The minute I reached the Post’s offices, I sought out “Mike,” as he was always known to staff. “I think I have done something very stupid,” I blurted out. “I bought a painting at an auction last night without even knowing who the artist was or what it was worth.”
Mike, ever the gentleman, calmed me down and in his worldly-wise way said: “There are two things you have to ask yourself: Do you still like it and did you have the money for it? If the answer to both those questions is ‘yes,’ then nothing else really matters.”
The sense of relief was instant. (For good measure, Mike noted that although I wouldn’t be able to regain what I’d paid were I to try to resell it, the price for the framed, signed, limited-edition lithograph by Zina Rothman was reasonable.) Years later, I still like it and I doubt anything I might have done with the money had I not bought the painting would have given me such lasting pleasure. I have passed Mike Ronnen’s advice on to others in similar circumstances, including a tourist who bought an expensive trinket in Hong Kong and was sharing her misgivings with me, a stranger, in a hotel lobby.
Her relief was much like mine. I shouldn’t have been surprised.
Looking back, I realize that the same counsel could have come from my grandfather. Some pieces of advice are destined to be passed down from one generation to the next. They might not be conventional, but they are valuable. One of the pearls of wisdom that my mother’s father handed on was: “Never gamble with more than you can afford to lose.” I mentioned it in a column I wrote when the world’s financial markets crashed in 2008. Alongside it I included another piece of what should be obvious advice: “Don’t gamble with anything that is not yours to lose.”
That was the year we discovered that somebody – or more to the point, a large number of corporate nameless somebodies – had been taking risks with money they didn’t really have and which didn’t really belong to them.
I have learned that you should not only listen to your mother, you should listen to other older family members.
But not only them. In a recent discussion on family wisdom, my 10-year-old quoted his favorite line from the old movie Auntie Mame (eclectic tastes run in our family): “Life’s a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death!”
He followed it up with a quote that would probably go down better in his state-religious elementary school, and will undoubtedly serve him better as a guide to life: “Derech eretz kadma latorah.” It’s a hard-to- translate concept which the Sages taught us means that behaving as a decent human being comes before everything else.
The advice might be ancient, but quoted by my son, I saw it with a fresh perspective. Rubinger should be proud of us.
And on the subject of different angles, this column is dedicated to my father, Chaim Collins, who is celebrating his 80th birthday this month. Dad, long may you live, learn, and share family wisdom.
The writer is editor of The International Jerusalem Post. [email protected]