Two photographic exhibitions at Cantor

Renowned photographer Leo Rubinfien photographs “a very strange and monstrous world” after 9/11, in which “privacy was attacked”. A simultaneous exhibition of the work of the late Helen Levitt reveals the spontaneity and liveliness of street life in New York.


“Tokyo – At Shibuya Station” by Leo Rubinfien

The events of September 11, 2001 left the nation bewildered, disoriented and helpless. But for famed photographer Leo Rubinfien, who had moved into an apartment right next to the World Trade Center the previous week, the event was a professional and personal turning point.

“I experienced it all first hand, very close,” Rubinfien said. For a long time afterwards, “I couldn’t imagine what I could photograph to respond to this event.”

Rubinfien’s current exhibition at the Cantor Arts Center, “Paths Through the Global City”, combines four of Rubinfien’s collections: Wounded cities (2002-2008), A map of the East (1979-1988) and two ongoing series, In the city of the world and new York. The Rubinfien exhibition runs at the same time as that of the late Helen Levitt In a New York minute.

Both exhibits continue through May 1. Free entry.

For Rubinfien, Wounded cities reflects the six years since 9/11 and “the climate of fear, uncertainty and misunderstanding in which I lived during that time”.

The photographer recalled that in his life before 2001 he had been “rather optimistic at the time with all the issues related to the globalized world”.

When 9/11 happened, he felt he couldn’t continue the work he had been doing.

“Everything I had felt seemed ignorant, naive, stupid at worst,” he said.

With terrorist attacks, he said, “people who live in peace and don’t believe they are living in war are suddenly drawn into a war.”

“I felt the invasion very strongly. Privacy had been attacked,” he said. “You can take a photo of a ruined building. You cannot photograph anything that relates to a person’s inner life.”

Still from the film In the Street by Helen Levitt

Still from the film In the Street (1941-1952) by Helen Levitt, courtesy of Cecile Starr.

Rubinfien described his feeling that living people had been reduced to political symbols, the targets of violent action.

“Politicians at the head of our own government were saying that our political existence was the most important existence we had,” he said.

In a sense, he started photographing potential victims.

“None of the people in the photos are victims – they are all ordinary people, people who could be victims in other circumstances.”

A key photograph in the exhibition is that of a young Japanese girl in Shibuya subway station in Tokyo.

“The hair is kind of shocking, but there’s more to it than that,” Rubinfien said of the photo. “She’s not just an Asian woman with orange hair. Her own expression is so distant and puzzled. I feel, looking at her, that I’ve entered a world of ghostly presences, like her.

“In a way, whatever the emotion, that seemed as good an emblem as I could find for…,” he said and paused, “after 9/11, having entered into a very strange and monstrous world.”

Rubinfien has long had a reputation as a photographer of city life and global settings. He admitted that his life is all about “traveling to photograph – and probably photographing to travel”.

This is the first time that its four collections have been exhibited together. The exhibition is an experiment “to see what happens if you put them together in one place”.

The Levitt simultaneous exhibition includes 55 photographs that the photographer – who was 95 when she died in 2009 – selected from among the most important images of her career. Levitt, who grew up in Brooklyn, dropped out of high school and learned photography while working for a commercial photographer.

“These Levitt images are icons of the spontaneity and eccentricity of the streets of New York,” said Hilarie Faberman, curator of modern and contemporary art.

Rubinfien described Levitt as “one of New York’s leading photographers”, with photographs that were “very gestural, very often on the move” and often “dancing”.

“Her photos are often taken in very poor areas of the city. Although she has insisted that poverty is not the subject of her work, it is nonetheless a strong presence in her work,” said said Rubinfien.

The exhibit includes his 1953 film In the street, which rotates continuously in the exhibition.

The Cantor Arts Center is open Wednesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursday at 8 p.m. For more information about the museum, call (650) 723-4177.

Cynthia Haven, Stanford Press Office: (650) 724-6184, [email protected]

Julia P. Cluff