Views from the Heartland: David S. Rubenstein

David S. Rubenstein author headshotMidwestern Gothic staffer Sydney Cohen spoke with David S. Rubenstein about his creative process, being a renaissance man, and more.

David S. Rubenstein is an American writer, photographer, poet, and painter. His short stories have appeared in Crack the Spine, Still Point Arts Quarterly, Blood and Thunder, Yellow Medicine Review, Chrysalis Reader (five stories), The MacGuffin (two stories), Owen Wister Review, DeathRealm, The Monocacy Valley Review, Half Tones to Jubilee, The Rampant Guinea Pig, The Mythic Circle, Alpha Adventures, and others, and have been nominated twice for the Pushcart prize. His photographs appear in Writing Disorder where he was featured artist, Chrysalis Reader, Midwestern Gothic, Blue Mesa Review, Drunk Monkeys, From Sac and others. His poem “High Place” appears in The Write Launch. A collection of his short stories can be found on Kobo here.

Sydney Cohen: What is your connection to the Midwest?

David S. Rubenstein: I grew up in Springfield, Illinois. Got degrees from Purdue in Indiana and Washington U in Missouri. Lived most of my life in Illinois. When I see images of home in my mind, the land is flat and fertile, wind-swept corn waving across the horizon.

SC: What launched you into the world of photography?

DSR: During my high school years in Springfield, I loved to drive in the country. I was attracted to vistas of traditional farms with barns of Indian red with their Dutch gambrel roofs, silos, and accompanying Aermotor windmills. My father let me use his old Leica, so I tried to capture those images. Those were the days of dark rooms and chemicals, and I remember burning soles from standing barefoot in spilled fixer.

Eventually I turned to painting, to have more creative control over the images that I was producing. I would photograph things of interest, and combine elements of different pictures into a painting. Recently people began to comment on these progenitor photographs, and I produced prints for them. Then, as I was submitting my short stories to various magazines, I noticed that they also sought photography submissions, so I sent some along just for chuckles and grins. They have been well received.


Summit - Views from the Heartland David Rubenstein


SC: You are a bit of a Renaissance Man, working as a photographer, writer, poet and painter. How does your photography inform your larger creative work? What is unique to the medium of photography, and what is shared by all the mediums you operate in?

DSR: The human experience is a result of sensory input to the brain. In all the media in which I work, I endeavor to generate in the mind a sense of place and a time or sequence of events within it. Many of my short stories began life simply as a sense of place, or a smell, or a vision. I endeavor, for example, to engender a smell, a feel, an image in a person’s mind, regardless of whether they are reading story or a poem or viewing a photograph or a painting. Photography has the advantage in triggering mental scenes via visual stimuli, a very strong input. But the printed word can coax the brain to create its own sense the many things that it manufactures which don’t require real-time sensory input. Painting can sometimes blur the difference between the two.

SC: Have any of your short stories been inspired by one of your photographs, and vice-versa?

DSR: Absolutely. Many stories start with just a sense of place, and events germinate there. “Shadows and Shades” started with a barn from a photo, and a sense of place from a song, and the events spiraled outward from those. “Canvas” has a painter making a colorful picture, but working it until it becomes all black, like day-for-night photos.


1112 - Views from the Heartland David Rubenstein


SC: What do you try to capture in your photography of the Midwest?

DSR: I’m drawn to farm fields and traditional wooden buildings. Old equipment. I have an eighty-year-old tractor that I feature in many shots. Elevation changes are great, but rare. One advantage of flat land is that you don’t have to get very high to see forever.

I try to depict the relationship between the land and civilization. The farmer, the fields, the crops, repeat. The decay of lost land. The poison of urban sprawl. The endless rebirth. A sense of peace. A sense of sadness.

SC: I am particularly interested in your play with color. Some of your most striking photos, including “WIP,” “Summit,” and “1112” are in highly contrasted black and white. What interests you about color, and how does changing this element affect a photo?

DSR: Color is an amazing quality, and I spend many hours enjoying its creation when painting. But sometimes it can distract from the essence of an image. In painting, there is a technique called “en grisaille”, wherein the artist limits the palate to just values of black. And many times when I am painting from a color photograph, I will print out a black and white version to help me see what the values of the colors are.

Suki in the Corn - David S. Rubenstein Views from the Heartland interview
I’ve attached a photo of Suki, my tractor, in a field of ripe corn. She’s red, and in the picture the corn is verdant green. The original raw photo is full of beautiful, saturated colors. It dazzles. But it’s almost as if the color is the purpose of the photo. It’s not. It’s Suki, still working the fields after eight decades. It’s the corn, still fighting its way from the earth, standing tall, reaching for the sun, making packets of genes for yet another generation, after a hundred thousand cycles. I feel as though that comes through so much better as the format approaches silhouette.

SC: How do you come across your shots – are they random, or do you go searching for them?

DSR: Both. I do take many drives specifically seeking photo opportunities. Since outdoor pictures are generally two-thirds sky, I look for days with bright, billowy clouds in a blue sky. Two-thirds of the picture a blank blue sky is pretty boring.

On the other hand, wherever I go, I am always on the lookout for interesting picture opportunities. There is a saying in photography, when asked “what is the best camera?”; it’s the one you have with you. I used to carry a small point and shoot in my pocket most everywhere I went, but inevitably would be without when I wanted one most. With the advent of decent cameras in smart phones, I’m pretty much always equipped.

One thing I’m constantly working on is scope. Given my affinity for wide-open spaces, I often find myself missing close up or macro opportunities. So I try to remember to observe the tiny as well as the grand.


WIP - Views from the Heartland David Rubenstein


SC: What’s next for you?

DSR: When I was in high school, I decided I wanted to be a writer and artist. I thought I could get rich, work independently, and that it would be a great way to attract girls.

Then I got married. But I continued on hoping to be able to quite my day job. But then I spent a career working for The Man behind a desk.

Then I retired. And I have enough to live on.

So now I do my art without ulterior motive. For the art itself. It’s wonderfully liberating.

Our Views from the Heartland series is a new series we started to give some recognition to the incredible photographers who submit their photos to us regularly. In it, we talk with some of our favorite photographers who we feel capture the essence of the Midwest in their incredible photos. Each month, we’ll post a new interview with a photographer in which we discuss their creative process, the intersection of photography and literature, and other fascinating topics.

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