Biography : Leo Rubinfien first won attention as one of the circle of young American photographers who investigated the new color techniques of the early 1980s, and much of his work has grown out of his extensive travels in Asia and around the world. His photographs have been acclaimed for the intimacy, humanity and vivid detail with which they look at the global city, and his first one-man exhibition in New York was at Castelli Graphics in 1982. Since then he has had one-man shows at institutions that include the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Rome, and the Yale University Art Gallery. He is the author of three books of photographs, A Map of the East (1992), Wounded Cities (2008) and New Turns in Old Roads (2014), and several small books that include The Ardbeg (2010). Rubinfien is also well known as a writer whose essays have appeared in the New York Review of Books, Artforum and Art in America, and he often combines photographs and text in his books. Introducing him to an audience at Smith College, Yola Monakhov said that he “marries narrative and photographs in as elegant a way as I’ve seen, weaving a double helix of two forms of authorship.” Apart from his primary work as a photographer and essayist, he has served as the curator of two major retrospective exhibitions for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, “Shomei Tomatsu / Skin of the Nation” (2004) and “Garry Winogrand” (2014), which also appeared at Japan Society and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the National Gallery of Art, Washington, and various other venues in the USA and Europe.
1. In your work the pulsation, oddness, and elusive enchantment of the streets are part of what makes your photographs convey the dense, humanistic, and experiential feelings of living in urban modernity. How has the experience of the pandemic changed your photographic outlook and activity?
For many years, I’ve done much of my work as a photographer traveling around the world and exploring back alleys and peculiar corners of cities that are not my own, but I’ve also worked in the streets of New York, where I myself live. With their enormous complexity, the millions upon millions of minute details that pile up in them (the transient joys and anxieties on the faces of people you can’t know, the different ways light hits the old lions and goddesses on the facades of buildings, the scraps you step up to in the gutters) cities have given photographers a kind of magical field onto which they can project what goes on inside themselves and see it light up. Looking at their best pictures, you get both an actual place, with its own taste and traditions, and some of the interior of the person who was seeing it. Work like this can be immensely evocative, but it is always ambiguous. Concerned mainly with feeling, it is not journalism, it cannot speak about great events of history or politics unless you attach words to it, and then, usually, it is the words, not the pictures, that tell you which decade you are in and who is persecuting whom.
When the virus arrived, such work stopped for me. It was impossible for more than a year for Americans to travel more than a short way, and New York itself shut down almost completely. The streets were empty, the dense life that makes that city an intensely exciting place went into hiding, and where a living person passed you by in public, it was most likely at a distance and with a mask on, which meant that you could see little of what he or she was about. You could of course photograph empty streets and grand views, but these said little about what people were actually experiencing. You knew that the great thing that was going on would be not be touched by your work. Covid has been an intimate fear and, for those who have got sick or lost people to it, a real tragedy, but, except for those people, it’s been one whose effects are hard to see with one’s eyes, a rather abstract calamity. And then there are countries like the U.S., where Covid has brought not just a medical and economic but a political crisis, as angry movements and unforgivable politicians have turned a practical problem (how to defeat a disease) to their happy advantage. I am afraid that the psychological and political consequences of this will be terrible, but they are not something one can speak about in photographs.
I was lucky, in a way, in that I work not only as a photographer but as a writer. In this period of unelected isolation I’ve been able to turn to a writing project, which lets me spend my time on things people tell me, historical events, memories, dreams, the nuances of words. I enjoy those things, which photographs can’t touch, as much as I enjoy the things that photographs can tell us about — the shape of a cloud, the exact accent of feeling in somebody’s eyes. I don’t know yet how the physical world will look to me when I’m able to go back into it.
2. Some years ago, we undertook an excursion to the Mercadão de Madureira, the large market of the North Zone of Rio de Janeiro that sells all sorts of goods but specializes in religious articles mostly for the Afro-Brazilian rites of the candomblé. As we wandered about the stalls and streets you took pictures and people were acutely conscious of your camera. One woman rushed up to us and demanded that you erase her daughter’s picture. You very calmly proceeded to do so. From your lengthy experience photographing cities and people in public spaces, what has changed? Is it still possible to produce a form of “street photography” or has social media changed this approach? Have people´s reactions to having their pictures taken been transformed?
One of the greatest photographers, Diane Arbus, said that the act of photographing is always uncomfortable for the person being photographed, and always uncomfortable for the person doing the photographing. I think this is often true, anyway, and often inescapable. Photographing strangers in public, I’ve had to learn to inure myself as best I can to what I think people might be thinking about me, and to concentrate on trying to get the picture I want to get. Sometimes someone will ask me “why did you take my picture,” and I may not really know. You work intuitively, and you may think that it was the expression you saw on the person’s face that drew you, or the way the light was falling, or how his or her body aligned with someone else’s, in the distance, or with the shadows on the sidewalk. Not until you have the actual picture and have lived with it for a while can you know what it really is that’s valuable about it, or what you intuited at the moment of photographing.
I think that on balance, more of the thousands of people I’ve photographed have enjoyed, or been indifferent to being photographed than have been angry about it, but there’s no way for me to know. Certainly, some have been angry, and a few very angry. That doesn’t mean that they knew what I was doing, or that they’d still have been angry if I’d been able to explain it to them. There must be people who get angry being photographed in public but enjoy seeing pictures by Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank in museums and books.
Is it more difficult to photograph in public now than it was years ago? I don’t know. When I was young I think that there was, in the United States, anyway, more of a sense of the public areas of cities not just as shared places, but as places where everyone was experiencing some common adventure, enjoying a spectacle of which they were also part. There are many places where I feel very little of this now, for example Paris, which once reveled in its photography, but has become a very difficult place to work. On the other hand, there are still places where photographing is not especially hard — Jakarta; Istanbul.
Asking the question, though, soon leads you into other questions that are even more mysterious. Are people more afraid in general, today, than they used to be? How can I say? Are they angrier? What are people afraid of, and what are they angry about? Do they even know? And is it more or less real than it once was? As soon as one tries to answer questions like this, one starts using useless cliches. And then, as a maker of pictures, an artist or a writer, how much right does one have to see and to record what life puts in front of you, without asking someone’s permission first? Do you have any right, or does the appearance of the thing that you see belong only to the thing’s owner? Is there a difference between a thing and the appearance of it? And since your rendering of it, in words or pictures, will change it, do you have the right to speak about it? It can even be asked if you have any right to see the life of anyone who is different from you, or if you should speak only of people of your own kind (whatever that means), or only of yourself? I will vote on the side of artists and writers, who want to see the world and say what they think they’ve understood, or failed to understand, but that’s only because I’m on their team. I don’t have solid answers to any of these philosophical questions.