Monday, December 15, 2008

Wounded Cities

As a graduate student, I had the great fortune to work with Leo Rubinfien my thesis year. I was already a huge fan of his woefully under-appreciated book, A Map of the East, and was just discovering his insightful essays on Winogrand, Robert Adams and August Sanders written for Art In America. Leo has a fantastic new book and traveling exhibition, called Wounded Cities, which combines his talent as a photographer and writer. Just published by Steidl, and currently showing at the Corcoran, Wounded Cities begins as a personal meditation on the psychological wounds of 9/11, but broadens to a larger exploration of cities, their inhabitants and the trauma of terrorism, religious violence and urban anxiety.

© Leo Rubinfien, All Rights Reserved

Having moved to downtown Manhattan in the shadows of the Twin Towers less than a week before 9/11, Rubinfien reflects on the violence that unfolded on the doorstep of his new home, its effects on him and his family, but also the lingering wounds and political anguish of the years to come. As he writes,

...I found myself searching the faces on each street corner 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...

Rubinfien moved from searching and photographing the faces of New Yorkers, to traveling to cities like Tokyo, Karachi, Bombay, London, Madrid, Nairobi, Tel Aviv and others, which had similarly been affected by acts of terrorism.

© Leo Rubinfien, All Rights Reserved

It is worth noting that Rubinfien never includes the rubble or any physical evidence of the attacks in his images and instead looks to the witnesses, the survivors. Projecting the complexities of 9/11 and other terror attacks on the inscrutable expressions of strangers photographed in passing is problematic at best. However, Rubinfien makes no attempts to account for their expressions or their meaning, which he admits could reflect any of a miriad of different personal worries. As actors, they become witnesses to terror - grappling with it's aftermath. Like the essay in which Rubinfien reflects on the personal effects of the tragedy, the anonymous faces on the streets become a mirror reflecting Rubinfien's conflicting emotions and struggle for meaning in the face of unspeakable horror and lingering terror - where did we go wrong, how did this happen?....

© Leo Rubinfien, All Rights Reserved

While the images are all striking and evocative, what binds the work together is the book's unique format and eloquent writing. As a traditional monograph with an essay, the book would have failed and lacked the personal and emotional weight necessary to carry the heavy subject. Instead, the book is essentially a personal essay, divided into four chapters, with over 80 gate-fold portraits interspersed. The first chapter considers 9/11 and events it triggered; the second chapter reflects on the the generation conflicts and political turmoil into which Rubinfien was born; the third chapter reflects on Islam, jihad and the predominantly young men who are drawn to groups as disparate as al-Qaida, Hamas etc...; the final chapter reflects on the 9/11 lingering political consequences around the world and the growing divisions around the world.

Largely influenced by Japanese photographers, Fukhase and Tomatsu come to mind, Rubinfien's personal and poetic exploration of the events surrounding 9/11 elevates the work above a mere document of the tragedy, making it one of the best, and most evocative, photobooks to deal with 9/11 and it's aftermath.

© Leo Rubinfien, All Rights Reserved

Wounded Cities is currently up in the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, DC and Robert Mann Gallery in NYC. The book can also be purchased here and here.