Beauty Isn’t Enough

Ernestine Ruben, who photographs the human body in unusual ways, will talk about “Detours in Photography” at the Princeton Photography Club meeting March 11. The talk, at the D & R Greenway Land Trust, Johnson Education Center, One Preservation Place, Princeton, deals with ideas, their origins and the voyages they take in the creative process.

Here’s what I wrote about her in December, when she had an exhibit at the Woodrow Wilson School’s Bernstein Gallery:

UNTIL recently, photographer Ernestine Ruben was best known for figurative work. Seen recently in the Eccentric Bodies exhibit at the Mason Gross School of the Arts in New Brunswick, the contours of light and shadow in her images are like landscapes of the human body: Her black-and-white figures show the mountains and canyons between thighs, arms, buttocks, the neck and an arm pit.

In recent work, she has turned to large-scale landscapes, embellished with paint, ink, crayon and encaustic. Some of these are digitally stitched-together panoramas that echo Chinese scroll paintings.

A few years ago, Ms. Ruben began to draw on a photograph of a nude hanging in her studio, and that act opened a window into a new way of working.

But really, it began much earlier than that. The young Ms. Ruben grew up in a family of art collectors, and went on to study art history and art education. Before discovering the photographer within – in her midlife – she was a sculptor and ceramic artist. By the 1990s, she was experimenting with gum bichromate printing – a process that is part photography, part printmaking – and made platinum prints on paper pulp, incorporating collaged elements.

In Imagined Landscapes, on view at the Bernstein Gallery, Ms. Ruben comments on the impact of pollution on a landscape still full of beauty and poetry. As an artist, she wanted to intervene: “Where there was pollution, I would inject clean air,” she writes. “Where they was decomposition, I would repair and further deconstruct.”

A world traveler, Ms. Ruben had been to China several times before, but when invited for an exhibition in Liangzhou in 2006, she traveled alone, accompanied by a university student as her translator. “I found myself jumping out of my own skin into the environment around me,” she says.

She was “spellbound by the color of the air and the shapes of the mountains,” she writes. “I imagined myself on an elaborate opera set which seemed to have been created by some strange force and where every element was designed to evoke a haunting and ethereal mood. My artist’s eye searched for birds, for movement, for color, but these spontaneous elements were hard to find in the December landscape.”

And so she adds “calligraphic gestures, fresh breezes and vibrations of plants and birds” by combining painting, drawing and digital imaging to photograph a landscape that didn’t exist.”

Ms. Ruben, 77, traveled to China in both 2006 and 2007, and during the second trip, after 10 days in the Yellow Mountains “looking at life, the world and the future of China,” she descended the mountain to give a workshop to 20 university students on what it means to be an individual in the arts.

“Within hours they had discovered their individual selves and started to produce innovative, risky, fresh and new work,” she recounts.

At the end of her workshop, Ms. Ruben received the tragic news that her 4-year-old grandson had died, and she had to fly home immediately. “And the students did the most remarkable thing,” she says. “They went ahead and installed my show – these were huge images!

“Life,” she continues, “is beautiful, precious but fragile.” She has published seven books of photography, and speaks like a poet.

But even before the trip to China, Ms. Ruben had been growing restless with photography. She had always loved to draw and paint (“I did it before I walked”), and began using the digital darkroom to develop large “canvases” that were “stitched” together. These horizontal banners were then enhanced with encaustic (heated wax), paint, pigment sticks, pastel, pencil, crayon, oil pastel, Magic Marker, stamps and inkblot with Chinese brushes.

“I want more life and texture,” she says. “A photographic image on a piece of paper is a dead object. I want to vitalize it and make it breathe, as a living sculpture. In 35 years of doing photography, this has been my biggest concern – taking photographs and pumping warm red blood into its veins.”

These days, Ms. Ruben is branching into three new directions. She is making silk scarves printed with Chinese landscapes; she is making large photo panels as part of an architectural project; and with her “China project,” she is helping to raise awareness of pollution in China.

The scarves have been a kind of homecoming for the Princeton resident, who has been exhibiting internationally in the past decade. She donated some photographic equipment to the Arts Council of Princeton’s new Paul Robeson Center, and images to the council’s Pinot to Picasso fundraiser, as well as a McCarter Theatre gala. She was photographed by Pryde Brown of Princeton to be featured as a Merrick’s Woman – an advertising feature the women’s couturier on Moore Street runs in newspapers such as this one.

Merrick’s owner Barbara Racik encouraged Ms. Ruben to print her images on the scarves, and introduced her to a clothing designer in New York. As a result, Ms. Ruben is partnering with the designer to produce a line of fashions with Ms. Ruben’s photographs, and it will be exhibited in a photography museum in Paris.

“Deciding what images make good scarves is difficult and has to be done carefully,” she says. Images from the Bayou Country and China have worked well.

Her architectural panels will be for the new University of Michigan Museum of Art’s staircase, and is being created in collaboration with The Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia. Six large photo panels will span the staircase, with subject matter relating to the elements: earth, air, fire, water.

“Instead of my projects getting smaller, they’re getting bigger,” she says.

With the China project, she injects vegetation and birds into the landscape, where they don’t exist because of pesticides or other forms of pollution.

“I have added paint to accentuate and control the decomposition and turn it into something visually compelling,” says Ms. Ruben. “By getting into the situation I felt more a part than if I let the camera do the whole job.

“A lot of people use the camera to take the picture, but I need to do more than that,” she continues. “I need to reinterpret what the camera sees and become the camera itself.”

Ms. Ruben credits Sandy Davis, her studio assistant, as being a wizard.

A recent series includes the swamps of the Louisiana Bayou. Here, we see roots and algae-covered forms that start to look like figures and forms. Just as her figures had been about the landscape of the body, the figure finds form in her landscapes.

For Ms. Ruben, art has to go beyond beauty. “Beauty is one element, but it’s not enough,” she says. “What interests me is how much life an image has, how the composition works, what feelings can be found and how do we, as viewers, react to the image. At all times I invite your participation in finding answers to my questions. What’s going on beyond what we see? My images are only finished when you see them and react and complete my reflections.”

Info on the Princeton Photography Club:

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3 Responses to Beauty Isn’t Enough

  1. I saw Ms. Ruben’s China exhibit at the Woodrow Wilson School and was blown away by its beauty. Her large panoramic images, enhanced by painting on the photographs, were incredibly beautiful and evocative.
    I look forward to her new show at Rutgers March 19 – June 8th.

    April 16, 2009, 4:30 p.m. to 7 p.m.
    Reception & Artist’s Talk, “Re-visioning the End of Life” by Cathy Greenblat and “Life in Photography” by Ernestine Ruben
    Mabel Smith Douglass Room, Douglass Library

  2. Dear Ilene,

    Tasha and I were bowled over by Ernie’s China exhibit, at the Woodrow Wilson School, and are eager to see the new one at the Douglass library and hear her at D&R Greenway Land Trust on the 11th.

    Ilene, we are so appreciative of your constant attention to the arts, in this blog and in the Packet.

    How blessed we are to live in such a happening place, creativity-wise. As a former resident of Michigan, Indiana, Ohio and especially of Savanna Georgia — this richesse is not the norm!

    Provence was alive and so was Manhattan — but Princeton and surroundings are simply hopping and you cover them so well.

    Blessings, Carolyn

  3. Valerie Chaucer-Levine says:

    Ernestine’s talk really made you realize the importance of recognizing and evaluating your reason[s] WHY you are making this or that photograph BEFORE you actually snap the shutter. She brought the creative process up front and center for all who attended her excellent presentation!

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