Global settings, New York streets: Two photography exhibits at Cantor

Acclaimed photographer Leo Rubinfien photographs "a very strange and monstrous world" after 9/11, in which "private life had been attacked." A concurrent exhibition of the late Helen Levitt's work reveals the spontaneity and liveliness of New York City's street life.

Leo Rubinfien's 'Tokyo - At Shibuya Station'

Leo Rubinfien's 'Tokyo - At Shibuya Station'

The events of Sept. 11, 2001, left the nation dazed, disoriented and bereft. But for acclaimed photographer Leo Rubinfien, who had moved into an apartment right next to the World Trade Center the week before, the event was a professional as well as a personal turning point.

"I experienced it all firsthand, very closely," Rubinfien said. For a long time afterward, "I couldn't imagine what I could photograph to respond to that 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 series-in-progress, In the World City and New York. The Rubinfien exhibition is running concurrently with the late Helen Levitt's In a New York Minute.

Both exhibitions continue through May 1. Admission is free.

For Rubinfien, Wounded Cities reflects the six years after 9/11, and "the climate of fear and uncertainty and incomprehension I was living in during that period."

The photographer recalled that in his pre-2001 life he had been "pretty much of an optimist in those days with all matters connected with the globalized world."

When 9/11 came, he felt he couldn't continue with the work he had been doing.

"Everything I had felt seemed ignorant, naive, at worst foolish," he said.

With the terror attacks, he said, "people who are living in peace, and don't believe they're living in war, are suddenly hauled into a war."

"I felt very strongly the invasion. Private life had been attacked," he said. "You can make a photo of a ruined building. You can't photograph anything that relates to the inner life of a person."

Image from Helen Levitt's film In the Street

Image from Helen Levitt's film In the Street (1941–1952), courtesy Cecile Starr.

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

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

In a sense, he began photographing potential victims.

"None of the people in the pictures are victims – they're all just ordinary people, people who could be victims in other circumstances."

A key photograph in the exhibition is a young Japanese woman in the Shibuya underground station of Tokyo.

"The hair is rather shocking, but there's more to it than that," Rubinfien said of the photo. "It's not just an Asian woman with orange hair. Her own expression is so remote and bewildered. I feel, looking at it, that I stepped into a world of ghostlike presences, like her.

"In some way, whatever the emotion of that is, it seemed as good an emblem as I was able to find for…," he said and paused, "after 9/11, having stepped into a very strange and monstrous world."

Rubinfien has long had the reputation for being a photographer of urban life and global settings. He admitted that his life involves "traveling in order to photograph – and probably photographing in order to travel."

This is the first time his four collections have been exhibited together. The exhibition is an experiment "to see what happened if one put them together in one place."

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

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

Rubinfien described Levitt as "one of the prime photographers of New York," with photographs that are "very gestural, very often about movement" and often "dance-like."

"Her pictures are often made in very poor parts of the city. Although she insisted poverty is not the subject of her work, nevertheless it's a strong presence in her work," Rubinfien said.

The exhibition includes her 1953 film In the Street, which runs continuously in the exhibition.

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

Cynthia Haven, Stanford News Service: (650) 724-6184,