Monday, December 29, 2008

Wounded Cities by Leo Rubinfien

The question of "Where were you?" in regard to the attacks of 9/11 was one of those small ways for people around the world to connect during that dark period.

I was in the middle of a nap in Backi Jarak, Vojvodina, a small town about twenty minutes from Novi Sad. I heard my girlfriend's mother come into the room and switch on the television. I opened my eyes and saw her pointing at the TV and smiling - smiling the same smile she always wore. My immediate thought was that she somehow had instinctively known that at that moment I wanted to watch TV and by doing me a favor, she was being a good host. It took a moment of letting my eyes focus on the screen until I saw plumes of smoke through the snow of the bad reception.

Later that evening over supper my girlfriend's brother was giddy over the attack. He loved what he interpreted as a time for 'payback' for the 78 days of bombing his family experienced in Novi Sad while the US and NATO punished the Serbs over Kosovo. He told me stories of trying to keep his wife calm and quieting their two children while the not-too-distant thumping took out bridges, radio stations and other infrastructure just across the Danube. 'Now you have an idea of what it's like?' he kept asking.

I returned to New York and found the city still in a daze. People shuffled around lower Manhattan with their heads filled with chaotic thoughts and questions desperate to make sense of what the experts referred to as 'a new era.' I walked among them feeling disconnected, like I hadn't experienced what they did. I certainly didn't. I was half a world away listening to newscasts in Serbo-Croatian blurred by static.

Leo Rubinfien was in New York on 9/11, settling into a new apartment whose triangular terrace points directly where the towers stood, two short blocks away. His new book Wounded Cities published by Steidl explores, not the physical, but the psychic wounds that remain long after moments of trauma.

Rubinfien's is a global story. For over five years, he travelled to cities around the world that had recently suffered from various terrorist attacks. Although centered around 9/11, because that event was his immediate experience, he identifies that the personal psychological aftereffects are just as devastating for the participants in any attack, large or small, whether in London, Moscow, Istanbul, Nairobi or Buenos Aires.

Working in the traditions of the street and mostly capturing his subjects unaware, he created fleeting portraits of passersby that allude to the shock and inner psyche of his subjects. These photos describe the moments when we are deepest within ourselves trying to make sense of the world in our new role as emotional 'witnesses' to these events even if not experienced firsthand. Thought and the search for rationale become last order of self-protection we can achieve.

Much of the artistry of Wounded Cities comes through the text. Rubinfien is a writer whose grace and clarity is found on every page. This is a memoir that acts as his form of therapy, a way to reflect upon all of the new questions raised by the attacks and bounce them off of his rich personal history and experience. Shaped to jump from the present to the past, across continents, into politics and back to family, he creates a complex page turner (a quality rarely found in a photobook text) that reflects his intelligence and vast understanding of different cultures. Rubinfien is truly someone who is at home in the world and his story is a refreshing antidote to the daily dose of xenophobia the news tends to bring in this new era. Wounded Cities is a tribute to humankind that deservedly avoids easy conclusions by not contracting the dialogue of recent terror but expanding it.

The design and construction of Wounded Cities also makes it an interesting contribution to book craft. Employing many foldouts for the images, its construction avoids a quick scan. It is a book that draws your attention to the text while the photographic foldouts slow the pace, giving the images a chance to sink in. Due to that pacing, small details in the images start to take on additional meaning. The faces we immediately focus upon eventually give way to other discoveries; the stiffness of a shirt, a necklace charm, the printed pattern of a piece of fabric, or perhaps the most remarkable in all of its simplicity, a lapel button hole.

Many books have been published which address the tragedies of terrorism, most having to do with 9/11 and they often touch upon the subject in very similar ways. By using his own experience of that day as a starting point, Rubinfien takes us on a more complex journey within which we revisit our own experiences - experiences that are to this day perhaps still filled with more questions than answers.


verninino said...

Excellent review, as usual, Mr. Whiskets. However, if I can be so audacious as to comment on the work sight unseen, I'd say, based on your review and the images on display here and at Steidl, its mood reminds me too much of Evans' subway photographs as well as a lot of the tomes of Sebastio Salgado; for better and worse.

I suppose if he were wandering selecting images at random it wouldn't be so problematic for me. But like Evans and Salgado, Rubinfien seems to intentionally select images of the sad, heavy despair of life.

I was in northern Manhattan on the morn of 9/11; also I had a dear friend who lived in Tribeca (possibly a neighbor of Rubinfien's) and saw the second plane impact from her living room window. And yet even back then, as we anticipated apocalypse, we found occasions for smiles and levity. Even at the vigils, especially at the vigils.

I'm not feeling that from any of the representative images extracted from the text, even though they are time-lapsed from the conflicts. Wounded cities aren't always mournful for everyone passing through them, are they?

I think if all concerned photographers selected the way Evans, Salgado and now Rubinfien do, we never know that anyone ever again gestures lightly in New York, or Hiroshima, or Kosovo, or Dresden, or Gaza. I personally know refugees (or children of refugees) of each of these ground zeros; they do learn and remember how to smile.

If Rubinfien's memoir is expressing sublime qualities not represented in his images, why not extract a sample or two?

There something a little sad (even pitiful) about a man who travels the world looking for despair and only succeeds in finding it.

Anonymous said...

mentioning Evans and Salgado in the same sentence is bad. Evans was aphotographer and artist. Salgado is a business man and preacher.

verninino said...

It takes more than two skimpy nouns to do justice to such iconic photographers. Anyone who does a two decade stint at as an artistic editor at Fortune magazine is no slouch at business, or preaching. Likewise, anyone capable of consistently extracting splendor from misery more than qualifies as an art photographer to me.

My point of comparison, however, is their tendency to focus almost exclusively on folks feeling glum, as if their thesis was Glumness. This is understandable from a fella like Nachtway, whose stated life-purpose is to promulgate infernal human suffering. But glumness is seldom omnipresent; study any subject (prisons, vigils, refugee camps, subway cars) with a generous eye and you'll always find other signs of life.

Anonymous said...

there are some people laughing in Many Are Called. Evans was not a good business man - sold his whole archive of vintage prints for a song in the early 70's. A preacher: yes.

verninino said...

Evans' conduct under Stryker and at Fortune is the stuff of legend, he knew how to take care of his business. Selling his images for a song just meant he didn't care much about money.

As for the gloominess of MANY ARE CALLED, well, I guess that'll teach me to use a single adjective to label an iconic project ;)

Anonymous said...

Admittedly I haven't seen the book in it's entirety, so my comment might not have much validity. But the entire premise & what I've see thus far from the project, just makes me shake my head and wonder what the hell people are thinking...

"Working in the traditions of the street and mostly capturing his subjects unaware, he created fleeting portraits of passersby that allude to the shock and inner psyche of his subjects."

This is just ridiculous. How you can possibly make a connection between the psychological wounds of 9/11 and the random expressions of people on the street? Are we also seeing the psychic wounds of WWII? The recession? The fall of man?

Remove all the text and all the conceptual garbage, and what do you have? Average to decent street photography from what I've seen.

There's no doubt Mr. Rubinfien is a talented artist who can articulate himself very well, but this premise is flawed from the beginning in my book.

One could easily photograph anything and then write up a bunch of text relating the photographs to the wounds of 9/11.

It would be more effective for me if he photographed landscapes or other objects rather than complete strangers on the street. Prescribing psychological wounds to strangers you only catch a glimpse of in a photograph really takes the power of photography to a new level. I mean, for all we know, these people could just be constipated...



Anonymous said...

I haven't seen the book yet but as I see images you show, I remember a very relevant comment :
"Of the 29 images that make up his contribution to this book, 25 of which are remarkably similar in the approach to their construction. From the tilt of the camera to the arrangement of the subject matter, they all follow a very similar form. It is as if Antonin is following a formula into which he is crow-barring his subject " (etc.).
That was about Kratochvil 18 months ago...

It also seems to me you like Steidl books a lot these days, maybe because they are nicely made. But I must say I have seen nothing good by them in the last couple of years (good photos, yes; Good books - books that sustain the work, reveal its most delicate sides and feed the viewer - rarely).
Serious products, but nothing singular.

Happy new year though and thank you again for that (unique) blog.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for the comments.

We agree as to the fictitious nature of photographs. Of course the people could be constipated or they could be happy when the photo looks sad but this is what the medium does best - it recontextualizes information. It alludes to various truths about the world even though they can't really be fully trusted. Mr. Rubinfien is bringing together a couple different mediums and creating a story.
Knowing how the medium works doesn't spoil my ability to go along with what to me is a well spun and thoughtful journey.

Anonymous said...


If you look over all 300 posts from the past year and a half you'll find many opportunities that show my inconsistencies. Guilty as charged. My tastes can be very fickle. That said I still think Kratochvil is not very interesting.

As for Steidl I've said it before and I will reiterate, they publish so much that it is natural for me to pay attention. I do like some of what they put out this one as an example. I would point to a publisher like Chris Boot and say that they very consistently create books that I return to but they don't publish very much. I wish they could do more.

Anonymous said...

Thanks to Verninino for the thoughtful comments at the start of this thread. Sorry I didn't comment before.

Double EE...the watchdog for Walker. Actually I think a contemporary of Evans can be found in someone like Fazal Sheikh. Take that EE! I just mentioned Evans and Fazal Sheikh in the same sentence. I just did it again! Hope I didn't put you off your feed.

Anonymous said...

Sorry Jeff, now you got me going. I don't know what Double E thinks but if you measure Walker Evans and Fazal Sheikh side by side and Evans is an average human height, that leaves Sheikh about the height of a flea.

Not a watchdog for Walker, only for quality.

Anonymous said...

How does a photographer's height pertain to his "quality?"

Anonymous said...


Purely written in jest. There are certain names that set the man off.

How tall was Atget?

Anonymous said...

Now you guys are all reminding me of the scene(s) in "Time Bandits" with Napoleon, drunk at the table, regaling his shorter friends with tales through the historical record of great short people. This is a "not-necessarily-for-children-only" film that you and Mr. Whiskets might enjoy renting from the NYPL....and seeing Salgado and Sheikh finally being mentioned on your blog, does this mean we can expect a 'best of' roundup of "distended belly"-chic photobooks soon? Maybe we could get Sally Struthers to co-judge...God forgive me and all of us...

verninino said...

Well, it just so happens that Leo Rubinfien is represented by the Robert Mann gallery, which is exhibiting his works through January 31. They're one of many representatives of Walker Evans, though apparently none of his subway snaps.

I reckon folks who bother to explore this show who also have a hankering for SOLITUDE OF RAVENS should know Mann also represents Fukase and has a bundle for sell (and, if your hands are clean and your manner is polite, for show).

Anyone interested in organizing a gallery trip?

Anonymous said...

Yes, I know how sensitive Double E can be. He recoiled with horror by certain books on my shelves (mostly gifts that I use for reference and will sell in my dotage) and said he wouldn't allow such trash to cross his threshold.

Atget was a giant. Remember the picture of the chairs and shoes on display? Now you know which were Atget's.

Yes, size does matter. I saw 'Time Bandits' on the big screen when it was first released. It's better to see works of quality in the full size for which they were intended to be seen. Unfortunately, I have had to resort to borrowing from the NYPL in the past.

Anonymous said...

In the many years I spent in the Bay area I enjoyed the older movie theaters (the Castro, UC, Paramount) and my favorite was probably the Grand Lake in Oakland. I saw "Time Bandits" probably for the first release on Shattuck in Berkeley but a couple years later I saw it at a kid's matinee at the Grand Lake with a girlfriend. I remember turning around in my 12th row seat and, looking behind me, espying maybe 800-1200 seats filled with children. I was amazed at how many had index fingers firmly implanted in their own nostrils scouring for snacks! How I wish Sugimoto could turn his large format camera on scenes of spectators such as those kids with infrared film a la Weegee! I love New York but the Bay Area still has a bit of my heart...and may God bless all those who resurrect and use the Wurlitzers mounted on hydraulic lifts in theaters and the BIG screens that stand behind them!

Anonymous said...

Sick Pup,
Check out and bathe in all the movie theater nostalgia you can handle.

Anonymous said...

stuart: trying to get rid of the fleas on the dogs, any suggestions? and would it work on fazal s.? cant use DDT.

Anonymous said...

Double E: If you build a flea circus on the outskirts of town, I think they will go there. It's futile trying to kill them off.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jeff,
I wrote a longer message earlier but for a reason I ignore it disappeared.
More or less, what I meant was : Hey Jeff, keep on being fickle (but not too paranoid). The reason why we come here is precisely that you are you and not us. (It is also because you express your thoughts with care and elegance, even though some of us don't necessarilly share them. But that is another point.)
Happy new year, etc.