David Rubinger in the picture

By Eric Silver, February 16, 2006
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A yellowing, framed cartoon hangs on the wall of David Rubinger ’s Jerusalem office. It shows a man with huge wings standing on the edge of a cliff ready for take-off. He is surrounded by cameramen elbowing for the best angle. Below, at the base of the cliff, stands a lone photographer, his camera pointing at the ground.

Rubinger’s picture editor at Time magazine sent it from New York. “David,” he said, “that’s where I want you to be. If he flies, I can get pictures from AP, the whole world. If he doesn’t, I want you to be there.”

Now 81 and still toting his trusty Leica, the stocky, grey-bearded doyen of Israeli photo-journalists took the advice to heart in a joyous career that spanned six decades, culminating in 1997 in the first Israel Prize awarded to a photographer. “That’s the secret,” he says. “Don’t be with the crowd… be somewhere else, even on the off-chance.”

His signature image — the three weary paratroops gazing in wonder at the Western Wall in the 1967 Six-Day War — was a product of that solitary enterprise, though Rubinger says he didn’t appreciate it at the time. He was on assignment with the army on the Egyptian border when he overheard on the commander’s radio that “something was cooking” in Jerusalem. He thrust his way on to a helicopter evacuating wounded soldiers, picked up his car in Beersheba and raced to the capital.

“I entered the Old City with the paratroops who took the Kotel,” he recalls. “The space was very narrow between the wall and the hovels that stood in front of it. I was lying down to get more of the wall in. These three soldiers walked by in awe. I just took a couple of frames of them, never thinking it was a great picture.”

About 20 minutes later, Shlomo Goren, the chief army chaplain, turned up with a shofar and a Torah scroll. Soldiers hoisted him on their shoulders. “I thought this was the picture,” Rubinger confesses. “I was crying when I took it. I came back home, developed the film and showed the pictures to my wife, Annie. I said, ‘Look at this fantastic picture of Rabbi Goren.’ She said, ‘Yes, but the one with the three soldiers is better.’ I said, ‘It’s just three soldiers.’ It turned out Annie was right.”

Under a gentleman’s agreement with the army that gave him privileged access to the front, he handed over one of the negatives. “The army gave it to the government press office, which started distributing prints for two Israeli pounds apiece. People all over the world pirated it. I was very upset but, in retrospect, I have to be grateful to everybody who stole the picture. That’s what made it famous.”

Rubinger will be in London next week for the opening of a parallel exhibition of his own photographs and those of the late Paul Goldman, a pioneering press photographer whose dusty negatives Rubinger rediscovered six years ago in a loft above Goldman’s daughter’s kitchen. He was looking for Goldman’s most famous shot: Ben-Gurion standing on his head on Herzliya beach. The archive was bought by an American collector, Spencer Partrich. Goldman’s pictures come to London after showings in Tel Av-iv, Detroit, Florida and New York.

The widowed Rubinger lives alone in a Jerusalem stone house near the German Colony. The living room is cluttered with Middle Eastern bric-a-brac. A coloured Rubinger portrait of Annie jostles on sage green walls with cult masks brought from trips abroad. Off to the left, the photographer’s office is lined with signed shots of Prime Ministers and generals, of Frank Sinatra and Marc Chagall, Henry Kissinger and Anne Bancroft, as well as his favourite image of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. It shows an elderly Yemenite couple grieving over the grave of their soldier son. “It touches me,” Rubinger says, “because the son’s name is Haim Yihye, which means ‘life’ and ‘he shall live.’ Nothing could be more poignant than that.”

Rubinger was born in Vienna. When Hitler came to power, he was kicked out of high school and joined the left-wing Zionist youth movement Hashomer Hatzair. In 1939, two months after the outbreak of the Second World War, Youth Aliyah ferried him and his friends via Italy to Palestine, where they were sent to a Jordan Valley kibbutz.

His father had already escaped to England, but his mother was killed in the Holocaust. It was a peremptory, teenager’s parting. He still feels guilty. “My mother took me to the railway station and I had no time for her. I was so busy with my chevreh that I hardly think I said goodbye.”

From kibbutz, Rubinger joined the Jewish Brigade, serving with Montgomery’s Eighth Army in North Africa, Italy, Belgium and Holland. In Europe, he acquired his first camera.

Claudette, a young Frenchwoman he met in a bar while on leave in Paris, gave him an Argus 35 mm. It whetted his appetite. Back in Jeru-salem, his first professional shot was of young Jews clambering aboard a British army patrol car to celebrate the 1947 United Nations resolution that paved the way for a Jewish state. On the 50th anniversary, he found most of the revellers and restaged the picture.

It was the start of a career that took him from Uri Avnery’s Haolam Hazeh magazine and the Jerusalem Post to Time and Life. In the early days, he was so green he asked a star Magnum photographer if he could share a room in a Tel Aviv hotel. “He looked at me like I was crazy. I wasn’t sure that I dared to charge for a hotel room. I’ve learned since how to spend money.”

After the Second World War, he visited his father in London. They discovered that some cousins had survived in Germany. Rubinger went to look for them and found Annie and her mother. He offered to marry Annie to get her an entry permit to British-ruled Palestine. “The fictitious marriage didn’t stay fictitious for long,” he smiles. “After a short while, it became a real marriage and lasted for 54 years until my wife died.” They had two children, five grandchildren and two great grandchildren.

Between covering Israel’s wars, Rubinger gained the kind of access to national leaders that was the envy of other photographers. He won their trust. “I’ve always tried,” he says, “never to be a paparazzo. I was the only photographer allowed into the Knesset members’ cafeteria. I could have taken pictures of Cabinet ministers with spaghetti hanging out of their mouths but I tried to take pictures that meant something. I didn’t intrude on their privacy.”

He once spent seven days working with Golda Meir on a “grandmother with a career” feature for Life when she was Foreign Minister. “I learned,” he says, “that there are three stages when you work with a person. The first is when they co-operate. Those are the posed pictures and they are awful. Then comes the stage when they hate you. You’re getting under their feet. The third stage is the best, when they’ve given up and they disregard you.”

That was when he took the picture that made the story. “It was Pesach. I sat under Golda’s table, near her legs, as she was spoon-feeding one of her grandchildren. You couldn’t have taken that picture on the first day. You need time to create a relationship with your subject.” It is, he acknowledges, one of the luxuries of working for a magazine, without daily-paper pressures.

Two years after Annie’s death, Rubinger met Tziona, a widow and retired social worker 13 years his junior. Although they never married, their two and a half years together were the happiest of his life: “Only at that age can you have a relationship where you don’t want to change the other person. You don’t live together. You have only the happy hours together.”

It ended in tragedy. Rubinger found Tziona lying on the floor of her flat with her throat cut, murdered by a gardener who had worked for her. It was a week before the first Paul Goldman exhibition was to open in Detroit. He and Tziona had tickets. Rubinger phoned Spencer Partrich and said he wasn’t coming. The sponsor urged him to wait a few days.

“During that time,” Rubinger says, “I came to the conclusion that, if I surrender to the mood, that there’s nothing more to live for, the body will follow the mind in a very short while. I made myself call Spencer and say ‘I’m coming.’ Thanks to that, I got out of it.”

    Last updated: 3:02pm, August 28 2014