Friday, May 13, 2011

An evening with Leo Rubinfien

Leo Rubinfien is a traveler, photographer, essayist, author, curator, and probably philosopher and poet. He is also a great speaker and his lecture at the SFAI (with Photo Alliance) last week was a great discovery for me. As an internationally acclaimed American photographer, his work has been exhibited in galleries and museums around the world so I was already familiar with some of his photos. But I feel that you always discover something more about the art when you listen to the artist. And of course when the artist is as smart and passionate as Leo Rubinfien it becomes an absolute pleasure.
A lot of artists prefer to let their work speak for itself - behind each image, behind each series a story is hiding – real or invented, anticipated or totally out of the viewer’s imagination. But as Rubinfien said during the lecture ‘a photograph tells you so little. It’s about what it doesn’t say as much as what it says.’ And I guess that’s really the beauty of photography.
When you think of Leo Rubinfien’s images you think of globalization, you think of the ‘world city’, you think about his book ‘Wounded Cities’ where after 9/11 he explored cities of the world that had suffered from terrorist attacks. But I believe his work is also really about what his images say as much as what they don’t say. Many critics raised about his series ‘Wounded Cities’ as the only link between the images is the context or history of the cities they were taken in. But the images only represent people in the streets lost in their own thoughts. Of course the people’s expressions cannot all be interpreted as effects of terrorist attacks.  It is impossible to guess the real reasons behind their expressions based on a photograph alone. But I guess it was the photographer’s way to project his own fear and questions after being personally touched by 9/11 attacks as he lived very near by.
My goal is not to serve the debate about this particular book, but to look at Leo Rubienfien work’s through his own lens, try to understand his perspective and objectives. And I guess his work is a testimony to his own relationship with the world. It’s not, as he explained, a recording of the world as such, because most of what goes on in the world is unknown, and of course only a negligible proportion of it is photographed. His work is more an expression of his own vision of the world. His work is about what the world is made of, beauty and ugliness, order and chaos, joy and fear, glory and despair. His way to discover the world is by photographing it and being surprised by what he has photographed. He is more interested in the uncertainty, the ambiguity of a photograph, by the mystery behind a single scene captured by his unconscious camera. He only searches for the meaning of a photography after he has taken it. He reminds us that a photograph is a static statement and the story we think it tells being about a political issue, a sunrise or a beautiful woman in the streets can only be the result of our own imagination.

For Leo Rubinfien a good photograph is in between truth and redemption, between the real and its representation, it makes the world more beautiful, richer, improves life as well as being a lie. Photography is like poetry and for him it can be defined by the sentence in a poem by Wallace Stevens ‘A Tune Beyond Us, Yet Ourselves’


First 2 cantos of Wallace Stevens'poem  "The Man With the Blue Guitar."

‘The man bent over his guitar,
A shearsman of sorts. The day was green.

They said, "You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are."

The man replied, "Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar."

And they said then, "But play, you must,
A tune beyond us, yet ourselves,

A tune upon the blue guitar
Of things exactly as they are."

I cannot bring a world quite round,
Although I patch it as I can.

I sing a hero's head, large eye
And bearded bronze, but not a man,

Although I patch him as I can
And reach through him almost to man.

If to serenade almost to man
Is to miss, by that, things as they are,

Say that it is the serenade
Of a man that plays a blue guitar.

At Harrods, London
On a Train to Brighton, England, 1980
Near Kowloon Station, Hong Kong, 1990
A View from the Sugar Loaf, 2000
Americans in the Breakfast Room of the Chateau de Cenevieres

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