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Remembering David Rubinger Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

3 March 2017

On March 1 the Israeli photographer David Rubinger passed away in Jerusalem at the age of 92, ending a remarkable life.

He was born in Vienna, Austria in 1924, the only child of a scrap metal dealer and a housekeeper. He was barely in his teens when Nazi Germany annexed Austria but he was able to emigrate to British-controlled Palestine under a youth quota system.

There he worked on a kibbutz until, when he was 18, he enlisted in the British Army, serving in North Africa and Europe. As a member of the Jewish Brigade of the British Army, he smuggled Jews into Palestine.

On leave in Paris, he met Claudette Vadrot, who became his girlfriend. When he boarded the train to return to Palestine, she gave him an Argus 35mm rangefinder.

He fell in love with photography. And it was mutual. As Karl Vick wrote in his obituary for Time magazine:

Think of a photograph from Israel and chances are it was taken by David Rubinger. The Israeli paratroopers gaping in awe at the just-captured Western Wall -- that was his. A jubilant crowd carrying a leader of the Entebbe raid on its shoulders? He got that. Prime Minister Menachem Begin, bent over to help his wife into her shoe on the official plane, Rubinger captured that, too. He seemed to be present at both every major milestones and every telling moment, though in many cases that was because he lifted his Leica and made it so. Israel's president, Reuven Rivlin, recognized just that in his official statement lamenting Rubinger's passing: "Through his photography, David eternalized history as it will be forever etched in our memories."

He worked for Time-Life over 50 years after a stint freelancing that landed an assignment for Life.

He developed his first rolls of film in the bathroom of his small apartment in Jerusalem, converting it into a temporary darkroom. By then he had moved up to a Leica he purchased in postwar Germany in 1946, trading 200 cigarettes and two pounds of coffee for it.

Today his archive of over 500,000 historical images "that tell the story of the state of Israel," as the Israeli newspaper Haaretz put it, is now housed by the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot, for whom he worked in the 1950s.

One of the founders of the Foreign Press Association in Israel, he became the first photographer to win the Israel Prize, the country's highest honor, in 1997.

'Try to live every day as if it is your last, but plan your future as though there were endless tomorrows.'

By then he had become the eye of Israel, showing up everywhere to capture the young country's history. The secret of his unprecedented access was both a nose for news and public relations.

To ensure access to the country's leaders, he would include their security guards in a few images and send the guards the photos. That guaranteed they would be glad to see him on his next visit.

He made it to Jerusalem to capture his most famous photo (if not, he said, his best) only because he heard a rumor while on the Sinai peninsula that something was up, hopped on a helicopter taking the wounded to Beersheba where he had left his car and drove until, too sleepy to continue, he picked up a hitchhiker (which is common courtesy in Israel) to help get him there. He had to lay down between the Wall and buildings in front of it to get a shot of it and then three young Israeli paratroopers stepped into his frame, making history.

He didn't think it was well composed but his wife liked it. When he gave that negative from the strip to the army, which he was contracted to do, the army sold prints for a dollar. It was widely copied, annoying Rubinger, who nevertheless admitted it had made him famous. In 2001, Israeli Supreme Court Justice Misha'el Kheshin declared the photo had "become the property of the entire nation."

The Guardian has published a gallery of several of his images. His 2007 autobiography Israel Through My Lens: Sixty Years as a Photojournalist was reissued as an ebook in 2013, available exclusively from the Apple iBooks Store.

Summing up his approach to life in that autobiography, he said:

And after all this, what would I say to those who ask me the secret of a fulfilled life? Mine is really quite a simple philosophy. Try to live every day as if it is your last, but plan your future as though there were endless tomorrows.

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