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Israel's All-Seeing Eye

March 27, 2008 By:
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His professional career fairly parallels the history of the Jewish state from its inception. Famed photographer David Rubinger, though born in Vienna in 1924, came to pre-state Palestine in 1939, barely escaping after the Nazi Anschluss, or annexation, of Austria (his parents' fate was different and very complicated). After working on two kibbutzim and serving in the British Army's Jewish Brigade fighting the Nazis, a girlfriend in postwar Paris bought him his first camera while he was on leave. He moved up to the classic, lightweight Leica camera that has been credited, because of its portability, with making photojournalism possible. By the time he returned to Palestine, he was married and assured of the work he planned to do.

His memoir (which happens to be packed with photographs) is called Israel Through My Lens: 60 Years as a Photojournalist. It was co-written with Ruth Corman, and published by one of my favorite art-book publishers, Abbeville Press. Early in the text, Rubinger notes that one of the first photos he took "was an image of some of my neighbors thrusting bread through a barbed wire fence to their relatives and friends. This took place during one of the many curfews imposed by the British in certain areas of Jerusalem. Roads were cut off from each other with barbed wire, largely in response to the activities of the Jewish terrorist group, the Irgun, who were proving troublesome and outright dangerous to the British authorities."

It is this combination of the personal -- at times, even the familial (in the sense of the Jewish people as related one to the other) -- mixed with the political that would mark his work throughout his varied career. One of his first professional photos featured in the book shows a group of young Jerusalemites, filled with joy, celebrating the United Nations' decision to establish a Jewish state; these young people have climbed onto a British armored car and are waving a handmade Israeli flag. You can see every bit of exultation on these mostly male faces, and you can read it as well in their body language. And there is a sweetness -- a modest, very human component -- in the makeshift flag that seems to summon up all their yearning and desire for a true home of their own.

Rubinger got his first professional job when he was 25 years old -- he was also a young father by then -- and it happened to be during Israel's War of Independence. He had already fought as a soldier, but when he made his wishes known to his superiors about eventually becoming a newspaper photographer, he was moved to the Army Map and Photography Services. He gained some technical knowledge and got some experience under his belt so that when the fighting ended, he began working as a freelance photographer.

By 1950, he'd purchased a Norton 500cc army surplus motorcycle. This came in handy since all of the newspapers at the time, except for The Jerusalem Post, were based in Tel Aviv. He would take his photos, print them in his makeshift darkroom, then storm off on his motorcycle to deliver them in Tel Aviv.

The turning point in his career, according to the photographer, came in 1951. "A man named Uri Avnery bought a moribund family magazine that he proceeded to turn into a unique Israeli institution. ...

"The name of the journal ... was Nine O'Clock, but he renamed it Haolam Hazeh -- 'This World.' It was a combination of a mass-circulation news magazine and a medium for pursuing aggressive political opposition to the establishment. It exposed, for the first time in Israel, issues concerning political and economic corruption, previously taboo subjects, and in addition advocated a radically different national policy." Under Avnery's tutelage, he dug into stories deeply -- one at a mental hospital, for instance, and another at a leper colony, not just visiting for a time but staying for days.

These experiences got him ready for work on one of Israel's top papers, Yediot Achronot, and from there, it was just a step to his long tenure with Time-Life.

He has covered most of the major stories that have marked Israel's brief but extraordinary history: the mass aliyot from various Middle Eastern countries during the early 1950s; the Sinai War; the Six-Day War; the Yom Kippur War; the visit of Anwar Sadat to Israel; the immigrations from Russia and Ethiopia; the war in Lebanon; the first intifada; the second intifada -- and on and on.

His signature image is, of course, the shot of the three paratroopers looking up in awe at the Western Wall soon after it was taken from the Jordanians on June 7, 1967, perhaps the greatest moment of the Six-Day War. Rubinger describes how he managed to get to the Old City just 15 minutes after the fighting had concluded, and how he was able to make that classic photo happen.

"The area between the Western Wall and the houses that were then standing near it could not have been more than 10 or 12 feet across. To get the most effective shot in such a narrow space, it was necessary for me to lie down on the ground and shoot skywards so that I could capture in my lens both the victorious Israeli paratroopers and as much of the Wall as possible. ...

"The scene around me was extremely emotional. You have to remember that this miraculous success followed three weeks of overwhelming gloom and despondency. People were crying with joy and relief, and I have to admit that, as I shot my pictures, tears were rolling down my checks too."

 

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