Leo Rubinfien
Wounded Cities

December 11, 2008 — January 31, 2009

Wounded Cities is acclaimed photographer Leo Rubinfien's exploration of the "mental wound" that was left by the terror attacks in New York in 2001, and in cities around the world in the years before and after. One week before September 11th, Rubinfien, his wife and small children moved into a new apartment two blocks from the World Trade Center. They experienced the violence up close and fled through the smoke and dust with thousands of others. Though the physical scars of the attacks were obvious, he believed that the emotional effect was more profound, and a year later he began working in cities that had been hit in similar ways, including London, Nairobi, Moscow, Buenos Aires, Istanbul, Karachi and Tokyo. Intimate, deeply felt and beautifully crafted, the resulting portraits are some of the most powerful of recent years.

"...I found myself searching the faces on each street corner," Rubinfien writes in the book Wounded Cities, "where, as people waited for the light to change, masked as at any other time, I would hope to discover indications of who they really were... to peel out of this stranger here or the next one over... some foretelling of what — if I extrapolated madly — was going to happen..." Like his earlier projects, Wounded Cities is notable for its humanism. In the faces we can see anxiety, fear, grief and also nobility. While Rubinfien's photographs often work to reach to the other side of the camera, they also describe an unbridgeable gap; there is constant uncertainty about whether the person on the other side is like oneself, or nothing like oneself at all.

Robert Mann Gallery's presentation of Wounded Cities coincides with exhibitions of the photographs (both black and white and color) at the Corcoran Gallery of Art (October 18, 2008—February 16, 2009) and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (January 31—April 26, 2009). The book of the same name, to be published by Steidl this fall, interweaves the pictures with a poignant memoir of the personal and political passions of the years since September 11th. Its unique design makes it one of the most original photography books ever published.

Wounded Cities is Leo Rubinfien's third solo exhibition at Robert Mann Gallery. His earlier project A Map of the East appeared as a one-man exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and has been called "one of the legendary works on Asia" (Donald Richie) and "a new kind of traveling picture poem" (Maria Morris Hambourg). Rubinfien's work is in major public and private collections in America, Europe and Japan and has been exhibited around the world, while his essays on photographers of the 20th century are among the essential writings on photography. He was recently Guest Curator of Shomei Tomatsu's 2004-7 retrospective, and co-author of the accompanying book, Skin of the Nation.

The Guardian
November 13, 2008
Liz Jobey

It is rare that a book of writing and photographs works symbiotically, rather than the text being an introduction to, or a critical essay about the pictures. Between 2001 and 2006, as he travelled to different cities round the world, taking photographs, Leo Rubinfien's commentary must have been growing inside him; moving from initial out-and-out chaos towards the thoughtful, controlled, but still charged piece of writing that appears in Wounded Cities, the story of how he and his family and the world around him were fundamentally altered by 9/11.

The book contains around 80 portraits, mostly in black and white, but occasionally in colour, taken on the streets of cities that have suffered terrorist attacks: New York, Madrid, London, Nairobi, Bombay, Tokyo, Hebron, Karachi, Jerusalem and many others. Many of them are hidden beneath the text in a series of gatefold pages you have to unfold — a convention that seems tricksy at first. Once you get used to the rhythm of the text and pictures working together, however, it proves more than a random sequence, and provides a carefully ordered visual subtext to his story.

As Rubinfien admits, the expressions of ordinary people, caught in the street, tell us little about them. They might be late for work, or worried about a debt. But the truth is that most of us who live in modern cities are anxious about more than ordinary things. We are primed, somewhere inside, for the arrival of a tragedy. We have learned, either from the news, or first-hand, that death can strike out of nowhere, and we might not know from whom it came, or why.

Most of us have the images of 9/11 fixed in our heads. Even though we may live thousands of miles away from America, I doubt there are many people who can watch a low-flying jet disappear behind a high-rise building without wondering, for a split second, whether it's going to come out the other side. So to have moved into a new apartment two blocks away from the World Trade Centre, as Rubinfien's family had, that September, makes you wonder how they felt when the first plane hit the north tower and how they coped with the immediate aftermath.

Rubinfien's book describes all this: the day, the sights, the noise, his unwillingness to believe that what was happening was not some terrible accident. "A second plane would have meant this was an attack, and I would not let go of the world of peace." But, as he acknowledges, it has been described thousands of times, just as the towers have fallen again and again on television replays as if people still can't believe it wasn't a movie.

His book, though, is less concerned with re-telling the events than with trying to understand their effects: on him, a middle-class, liberal Jewish American in his late 40s; on his wife, a Wall Street analyst; on his children, one of whom is struggling with a rare genetic mutation whose outcome is not fully understood; on his parents, who built the world he lives in now, and on the society of which they are all a part. Then, in a leap that takes him beyond New York and his immediate experience, he questions what effect terrorist attacks have had on other people, in other cities around the world, all of whom seem, spiritually, if not actually, wounded by the attacks of 9/11.

The book is divided into four chapters: the first looks at 9/11 and its immediate aftermath. The second considers the age into which Rubinfien was born, examining the legacy of America's post-war hegemony — not an empire in the old colonial sense, but a controlling presence via its complex of US bases around the world — which has brought the revenge of Osama bin Laden to his door. The third section looks at Islam, and the concept of jihad, as Rubinfien tries to understand why so many young men are willing to die by their own hands and take so many innocent civilians with them. In this he includes not only the followers of al-Qaida, but Palestinian militants, and other terrorist groups, not all of them Islamic. Groups so different that, he writes, "You could hardly squeeze them into the same sentence. And yet, I'd think, marooned in gloom, the wounded cities were alike, weren't they? From the victim's point of view they were. Civilians had been punished in them all, not by accident, not as collateral damage, but because they were civilians." In his search for answers, he finds a more sobering possibility: that rather than being driven by religious zeal, militant Islam offers its followers something more pervasive and more banal: "By way of jihad, a man who felt pushed down could recover his pride."

In the final chapter, as he considers the years since 2001, everywhere he finds division, not just between Muslim and Christian, but between democrats and republicans, Palestinians and Jews. In Gaza, he is reviled by a Palestinian for being an American, and for everything that stands for. This man tells Rubinfien he does not believe in suicide attacks, or terrorist bombs, but that, these days, if he heard something like that was going to happen, "I might do nothing to stop it. I might look the other way."

Rubinfien and his wife spend long nights arguing about the war. "I still don't understand why we went," his wife says about Iraq, and I still don't see why we're there." He wonders if Bush and Bin Laden are codependent. Could Bin Laden have foreseen that the long-term effect of the 9/11 attacks would be to turn America against itself, and the rest of the world away? He feels the ostracism of others keenly. Like thousands of other Americans, he explains that Bush's policies were never his own. But in the end, after all the nights his wife remembers as being dark, as if it was always winter, nothing is really resolved. His family has survived. But nothing is the same. From this Rubinfien has, nevertheless, made a convincing portrait of personal and global doubt.

The Washington Post
November 21, 2008
Henry Allen

Facing Reality: On Streets Transformed By Terror, A Photographer's Focus Is People

Saw the flash... women, children... plate glass scaling through the air... one minute just a blue truck parking by the market, then... heard somebody screaming and it was me... saw a plane where you don't see planes... a shoe lying there with the foot still in it... the wall collapsed like it was melting... hidden under her robes... on the sidewalk like he was just sleeping... if I'd left the cafe 30 seconds later... what kind of person...

Terrorism creates witnesses, onlookers, bystanders, survivors. That's the point. It terrorizes them — changes them forever, gives them dreams where they see the bicyclist again and again and they try to shout that he's going to... terrible moments for years on subways, a dead spot in their souls. It sucks the meaning out of their lives, and they'll never get all of it back.

Leo Rubinfien, photographer and writer, was in his apartment two blocks from the World Trade Center when the planes hit, Sept. 11, 2001.

"The plane was moving far faster than you ever saw one go so low in the sky... jagged tear in the north tower... exploded... hot and orange, the great gassy flower blew out," he writes in "Wounded Cities," a book that accompanies his photography show of the same name at the Corcoran Gallery.

Unlike so many other photographers, Rubinfien never made the disaster site his subject. He reasoned that yes, there were rubble, chaos and heroism to photograph. But the terror itself lived on in the minds and hearts of its witnesses, in their recognition of a truth contrary to anything they'd imagined, as if some bedrock had given way and reality itself had betrayed them.

He wanted to show this in pictures. He knew he would find it only in faces, not in wreckage or corpses.

He traveled to places that had suffered terrorist attacks: Tokyo; Tel Aviv; Istanbul; Manila; Colombo, Sri Lanka; Bali, Indonesia; Buenos Aires.

Unlike generations of documentary photographers recording the troubles of the world, he made no effort to reveal private truths lurking beneath public faces.

Instead, he used people on the streets as unwitting actors. He had no idea what they were thinking about. They could have been fearing the suicide explosion of the taxi next to them, or "they could have been worrying about a chicken they left in the oven," he says. It didn't matter.

These pictures — 5 by 6 feet, mostly black-and-white — don't tell the truth about these people as much as they tell a truth with these people, as if they were figures in a Crucifixion pageant, standing beneath the cross, astonished, frightened, their faces asking, "Did you really think this couldn't happen?" They are accidental models. The pictures look like documents, but they aren't. They're nothing but art. He has escaped the idea of the photograph as fact-in-itself, as a physical record of reality, and given us a concept instead, a fiction.

It's a fiction you believe, for the moment, like all good fiction. You become complicit in Rubinfien's chicanery. Instead of seeing people worried about lost car keys, you willingly see witnesses of terror.

You behold the astonished disgust of a woman in Tel Aviv, the desperate contempt of a man by a stoplight in Madrid, the sad amazement of an old woman in London who can take small comfort only in knowing that after all she has seen and learned, she still has not lost her capacity for shock. A man in Moscow sees the horror once more — he knows too much and knows that he knows it. A toddler in Mombasa, Kenya, stares with the terrible coldness of children while the mother bows her head in sorrow. A young blonde in Moscow smokes a cigarette and thinks about a new future racing toward her and wonders what she'll have to do to survive it, how demeaning it will get.

Peering from corners, staring at the sky, these faces seem both appalled and relieved to note that they are bearing the unbearable, and holding up quite nicely, thank you. Or they are cynics disappointed to discover that they were right all along, that there is no such thing as cynicism, their most caustic and dismissive opinions are ordinary truth.

Looked at each other with a wild surmise... changed, changed utterly...

Or they're worried about the chicken they left in the oven.

Walker Evans, who documented faces of the Depression, once said that he didn't think a photograph told you anything about the inner person. We don't like to think that's true. Hence the public acclaim for Richard Avedon, whose famous faces are upstairs at the Corcoran right now, with their pretense of showing you the real Eisenhower, the real Kissinger. But it was usually a photographer's trick that Avedon played to make you think you were seeing the alienation or bewilderment behind bright, wise, courageous faces.

Here in a downstairs gallery, in a show curated by Philip Brookman with his usual deft clarity, Rubinfien goes beyond this conceit of insight and simply uses the people he photographs to illustrate what he himself felt, knew and would never forget after 9/11. And beyond that, he shows us a side of humanity that we all recognize thanks to the most expressive medium in the world, the human face, which sends signals with near-perfect efficiency. You see. You know.

The New Yorker
January 12, 2009

Rubinfien began this series of "Wounded Cities" photographs after fleeing from his home near the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. He wasn't the only one searching the faces of strangers on the street for signs of shared humanity, but he didn't stop with Manhattan; he also walked the pavements of Tokyo, Jerusalem, Benares, and elsewhere. Because Rubinfien zeroes in on figures seen in passing, his work echoes that of William Klein, Beat Streuli, and Philip-Lorca diCorcia and invites us to read something—anything—into expressions that are often unreadable. Huge prints undermine images that work best on a more intimate scale, so the accompanying book is a welcome alternative.

February 26, 2009

Face of Our Time at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, was a 2009 exhibition featuring works from Leo Rubinfien's Wounded Cities series. A selection from the review by Stephen West is included here:

George Orwell once wrote that eventually "every man has the face he deserves."

That's the idea behind an intriguing photography show at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. "Face of Our Time" features four contemporary photographers whose work is linked by their shared sense of the uneasiness and turmoil in the world...

...Leo Rubinfien's pictures may be the most ambitious in their scope, seeking to depict the faces — and the state of mind — of places that have suffered terrorist attacks. Conceived as a response to Sept. 11, Rubinfien surveys contemporary anxiety on city streets from London to Buenos Aires to Jakarta.

Often captured with a tilted frame that gives the photos an offhand quality, his subjects are shown in ambiguous moments, rising diagonally from the bottom or corners of the pictures, sometimes blurred or partially obscured.

A woman wrapped in a white shawl in Casablanca frowns at a young man who may be her companion (or may be a stranger on the street). A woman on the observation deck of the Empire State Building in New York, alone in a crowd, stares off to the left as her blond hair blows in her face. These people are clearly nervous, though we're offered little explanation why.

Maybe that's the point.

March 2009
Cara Ober

After witnessing the attack on the World Trade center from his apartment window, Leo Rubinfien recognized his own feelings of despair in the faces of his fellow New Yorkers. He began by taking their pictures, and as the project evolved over the next seven years, he sought out other urban sites around the world where acts of terrorism had occurred, and he photographed the people there.

Is the old man on the side of the road in Karachi mourning a tragic loss, or is he simply waiting for a bus? Is the schoolgirl in Seoul grumpy with hunger, or is she worried that terrorists might strike again? The viewer will never know why the subjects in these large-scale journalistic portraits look battered and uneasy, but that is the point—how the lasting psychological wounds of terrorism integrate themselves into generalized anxiety.

Rubinfien employs an extremely shallow depth of field to reinforce the solitude of the individual within the crowd. Tokyo, 2002, at Shibuya Station one of three color prints in the show, features a baby-faced woman with cascading blond hair staring vacantly at the camera while a blurry throng swarms around her. For Istanbul, 2004, at Taksim Square, which portrays a pair of young men, Rubinfien cropped the image to highlight features such as furrowed brow and the intense gaze on one man's face while filling most of the frame with the blurry head of someone closer to the camera.

The photos, which where published in Wounded Cities by Steidl in December, where suspended without frames from metal wires, forming an intimidating maze of peopled imagery approaching and receding from view. The unusual installation re-created the claustrophobic anxiety that Rubinfien's subjects might have felt in the city streets.

Selections from this series were on view earlier this winter at Robert Mann Gallery in New York and can be seen at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art through the 26th of next month.

San Francisco Chronicle
March 7, 2009
Kenneth Baker

Face of Our Time: Four connected solo exhibitions at SFMOMA by photographers Yto Barrada, Guy Tillim, Judith Joy Ross and Leo Rubinfien make up "Face of Our Time," a moving anthology of the ways history writes itself on the faces of those who make and suffer it.

Among the SECA award winners, only Paglen's work can stand comparison with the sober, grown-up impression this show makes.

Moroccan photographer Yto Barrada scans a human landscape under contradictory threats of development and abandonment in which social and physical facts seem to have a bizarre intimacy and interchangeability.

South African Guy Tillim immerses himself in the turmoil of African political aspirations and movements, delivering pictures that compensate in expressive detail for what they cannot convey discursively of the events they describe.

Judith Joy Ross' quiet portraits of anti-war protesters put before us individuals whose mien makes us imagine we might feel privileged to know them, whatever the facts of their lives.

Leo Rubinfien nearly dominates the show with large street photographs of people taken in cities that have experienced terrorism. Add these arresting unposed portraits to the list of essential post-Sept. 11 artworks: essential in their expressive summing up of the feeling of a sudden change of historical weather.

Summer 2009
Max Kozloff

On one level, Wounded Cities reads as a personal lament for a world supposedly at peace before September 11. On another, it is a personal inquiry into the consciousness of increased terrorism across the globe since that day. Retrospection and apprehension share an uncomfortable space in this beautiful book. Its author, Leo Rubinfien, is a middle-class New Yorker now in his mid-fifties. His family moved into an apartment only a few blocks from the World Trade Center shortly before it was attacked. At his window, he witnessed the crime while his wife was on her brief walk to her job. Throughout the book, he acknowledges that close friends and family members, as well as some people whom he meets abroad, consider him a sentimentalist. Where he needed to understand this or that side of conflict, they thought he was trying to exonerate it. In truth, he gives the motives of adversaries (such as they can be known or guessed) their due but is unsparing in his judgment of their ruinous effects. What cause, he asks, is worth crushing innocent lives, inspired by cycles of mindless retribution — an injury to all citizens who must be concerned. Though no pacifist and capable of anger, he presents himself as a rational person, utterly dismayed by the medievalism that has been spreading throughout the world over the past eight years. This attitude may seem unremarkable to those repelled by ideology, but it is lifted up by the music of Rubinfien's voice — and then there are his photographs.