Three years ago Josh Rubinstein was almost killed during his first taxi ride. An Art Institute transfer student from the University of Colorado, he was catching his first glimpses of the city on the drive from Midway when a semi began jackknifing in front of the cab. As the driver swerved out of harm's way, his eyes met Rubinstein's in the rearview mirror, silently acknowledging their mutual brush with mortality.
Downtown the cabbie tried to refuse the fare. "He felt really bad even though it wasn't his fault," says Rubinstein. "It was kind of like a gift of kindness in the sense that we did that together. It was almost like a happiness to be alive." Rubinstein insisted on paying and they shook hands. "Assalamu alaikum," the man said before driving off.
Later Rubinstein began hanging around with taxi drivers, most of them Pakistani. His experience had inspired a curiosity about their culture. He haunted the taxi queues at O'Hare and went to eat with the drivers he met. Soon he had built up enough trust to start taking photos. "It was a little awkward at first," he says. "'Why do you care about me? No one had cared about me and my job like this.'"
Rubinstein had also become fascinated by the city's public-transportation system and started hanging out in el stations during lunch breaks from his day job at Central Camera. He paid special attention to the buskers performing in the four CTA-designated spots on the Washington and Jackson stops of the Blue and Red lines. "I began to watch people interact with them," he says. "I really felt that they were changing the space. They were making it more beautiful. The walls are all dirty and there's brake-smoke smell and it's kind of an unfriendly place in general. Musicians seem to liven it up." He began taking pictures of them too. "I knew when they would be kind of possessed and they wouldn't see me anymore. We were good friends by then, so I kind of faded away. I would know when there was no resistance between the inner voice and the expression of it." Lighting was another challenge. "The Red Line is really tough to shoot under because it's got poor lighting compared to the Blue Line. I had to really wait for those moments, where they're in that captive moment, and under the lighting that I needed."
Finding such subjects is the reason Rubinstein came to Chicago in the first place. "Boulder is just a little bubble," he says. "I wanted to meet other people from different backgrounds." After a year he dropped out of SAIC, finding it "too conceptual," and enrolled at Columbia College. Last year the school awarded him a scholarship to help with the publication of Gaia, his journal of documentary photography. The first issue, which came out last month, features his musician and cabbie pictures with accompanying text as well as work by fellow photographers Donnie Seals and Tom Arndt. In the magazine's mission statement Rubinstein writes: "The name of the journal represents Mother Earth....The human species and Gaia are always learning from one another. This journal is here in hopes of keeping us connected with other people's lives, souls, and dreams, both as a mirror and window." This optimism is sometimes expressed with an ardor that might make Jedediah Purdy snicker: Gaia's last page features a photo of a cop helping an old lady into a taxi, and Rubinstein's caption reads, "I hope this can be a model, not only for cabdrivers and city officials but for humanity to apply to other countless situations."
At 23, Rubinstein has plenty of time to change the world. For now, "my focus is on making sure this magazine stays alive," he says. He continues to shoot people on the Red Line on his way to work. "That's the exercise I do just to keep shooting, because it's important to never stop. I've got to keep that momentum going, keep that finger clicking and thinking all the time."
An exhibit of Rubinstein's photographs of subway musicians opens Friday, February 18, from 6 to 10 at 634 S. Wabash (use the rear entrance). Some of the musicians will perform. The exhibit runs through Sunday, February 20. Admission is free. Call 773-769-4046 for more information.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.