This week, Israel mourns the passing of David Rubinger, the legendary photographer who Shimon Peres called "the photographer of the nation." Rubinger captured some of the most historic and iconic moments in the state's history.
Rubinger was born in Vienna and emigrated to Palestine in 1939 at fifteen. He fought in the British Army's Jewish Brigade before returning to Palestine in 1946 to witness and photograph the country's birth.
In his sixty years as a photojournalist, David Rubinger was privy to moments with some of Israel's greatest leaders, from Ben Gurion to Golda Meir, and leaders and notables around the world, including Eleanor Roosevelt. He took over 500,000 photographs of Israel's leaders, events, and citizens. He was the unofficial personal photographer to every prime minister, beginning with David Ben Gurion, worked as a photographer at Time Magazine, and helped found Israel's Foreign Press Association. Rubinger's shot of the three paratroopers gazing at the Kotel for the first time after taking back the Old City during the 6-Day War of 1967 may be the most famous photo of Israel known around the world.
Photography played a role in promoting Zionism and critiquing Judaism around the world. Compared to pictures of pogrom victims, weak shtetl Jews, and Holocaust victims and survivors, Sabra men and women at work showcased the new Jew: safe, strong, and happy, finally in the place they were destined to be. In the delicate braiding of continuity and discontinuity that marks modernity's bond with what preceeeded it, God forged a covenant with Abraham that the land would belong to his offspring, and here was the dissonant proof: in Israel, mostly secular "new" Jews were thriving as God had promised! Photos of kibbutznikim farming in the sun and young soldiers enjoying each other’s company while protecting a fledgling country enticed Jews around the world: ‘join us, leave Diaspora hardships for Zionist happiness in a Jewish homeland.’
As both material object and as a capturer of material reality, photography works within the nationalist project of creating icons of the nation and its state. It has often been remarked that the modern nation-state replaced the church in some ways: its need for symbols, for pageantry, for the life of spirit, for redemptive heroes and myths.
What makes photography of Rubinger’s kind so interesting is that on some level it is so anti-mythic, so grainy, so real. It is not like a painting, where the artist is in full control of the final product they produce. To an extent, when a lens is aimed at a subject, the result is just a photo of it, no matter lighting or visual tricks the photographer employs.
But many of Rubinger’s subjects, the ordinary people and the extraordinary, are mythic in the role they played in the birth of the state of Israel. He depicts Ben-Gurion as both human and hero, a powerful leader and a normal little old man. His photos somehow immortalized their subjects while portraying each person as they are: mortal. Like much of the land of Israel, Rubinger’s photos are artifacts: ‘ordinary’ things that due to the passing of time are extremely significant and valuable to us today.
David Rubinger’s photos made Zionism more accessible to the world as Israel came to be, and more extraordinary in posterity. Through his photos, he recorded the history of a young nation in a way that most elder nations of the world do not have: everyday movements and major events that manifested in a new country. He captured Israel as utterly normal and somehow the inheritor of the enormity of the entire Jewish story. His life’s work is a truly enormous gift to us all.