Photographing Icarus

Photo Essay

By Avi Steinberg

Published January 08, 2008, issue of January 11, 2008.
  • Print
  • Share Share

For 200 cigarettes and a kilo of coffee, David Rubinger bought his first Leica camera. It was Germany, 1946. Rubinger, a young Viennese refugee serving in England’s Jewish Brigade, got to work immediately, photographing postwar devastation. These were the first shots in a long career of documentary photography.

It was a career whose philosophy was summed up, appropriately, by an image: For years, a comic hung over Rubinger’s desk that pictured the flight of Icarus, the mythological boy who flew too close to the sun. The comic depicted a throng of photographers setting up a photo of Icarus taking off. One lone photographer, however, aims his camera at the ground, at the site where the crash was bound to happen.

A newly released memoir, “Israel Through My Lens” (Abbeville Press) — in which Rubinger gives a spirited account of his six-decade, seven-war career as Time-Life’s photographer in Israel— will give readers an insight into the man who made a million split-second decisions regarding the angle and the light in which to view history.

Rubinger’s work is remarkable for its ability to characterize an individual person and to have that image, in turn, characterize an entire era. In this shot, David Ben-Gurion — who stood at 5 feet 3 inches — appears not merely as the prophet but indeed as the prophetic mountain itself. Like Sinai, Ben-Gurion’s head bursts with creative rage, beclouded but aflame, concealed but revealed, thundering forth. The photo’s angle and dark background abstract the image in space, bringing to mind the midrash of Sinai: of God suspending the mountain over the heads of a terrified populace, challenging the people to accept the Law, or else.


In contrast, here’s this 1960 shot of Ben-Gurion’s wife, Paula, who is sitting behind the curtain of the old Knesset chamber. According to Rubinger, Paula Ben-Gurion’s running commentary on the parliamentary proceedings was heard by all. “Why are they bothering him?” she’d grumble. “He hasn’t even had his tea yet.” In this image, Paula Ben-Gaurion embodies a Yiddish- inflected, homespun comic-skepticism that literally sits behind the curtain of an earnest Hebraic ideology. In his book, Rubinger recalls Paula’s reaction upon the couple’s relocation to a spartan cottage on the edge of the Negev, a fulfillment of Ben-Gurion’s ideological commitment to desert pioneering. Upon seeing the cabin for the first time, Paula threw her arms in the air and cried out in Yiddish, “Oy, where has he schlepped me to?”


The image of a battered Palestinian girl standing in the ruins of her family home — a home bulldozed by Israel under suspicions that it had harbored terrorists — elicits an immediate emotional response in the viewer. The photo was taken in 1969, two years after the shot of the paratroopers at the Western Wall.


A 1980 image of Menachem Begin and the Egyptian president Anwar Sadat offers an insight into a hidden element of peacemaking: intimacy. This photo, which Rubinger considers one of his most finely tuned images, captures the two leaders in a private moment of hushed diplomacy.


The plaintive, Hopper-esque feel of Yitzhak and Leah Rabin sitting at their breakfast table would be noteworthy even if we didn’t take into account its striking context: the tumultuous period between the Oslo Accords and Rabin’s assassination. Here is the shy Rabin in a quiet space — outfitted in the suit and tie that never looked quite right on him — moments before he set out into the tooth-and-claw world of politics. Rubinger later photographed the blood-stained “Song to Peace” song sheet that was discovered in the murdered prime minister’s suit pocket.


Rubinger’s image of Israeli paratroopers in front of the Western Wall was recognized instantly as iconic — except by Rubinger himself, who, until persuaded otherwise by his wife, favored a photo of Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren exalting in victory. The photo was promptly stolen by other photographers — who took credit for it — and appropriated by the Israeli information apparatus, which wasted no time in mass producing it.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • Planning on catching "Fading Gigolo" this weekend? Read our review.
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. http://jd.fo/q3Iaj Is this money spent wisely?
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.