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Raeanne Rubenstein, Versatile Celebrity Photographer, Dies at 74

Raeanne Rubenstein, whose distinctive photographs captured the stars and the energy of two seemingly disparate worlds — the emerging art-and-rock scene in New York beginning in the late 1960s and, soon after that, the country music world of Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton and others — died on Saturday in Nashville. She was 74.

Her assistant, Stephen Kohl, said the cause was cardiac arrest.

Ms. Rubenstein photographed Andy Warhol, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Jimi Hendrix and countless others who were part of the high-voltage New York scene in the late 1960s and early ’70s. Camping out at places like the Fillmore East, the storied rock venue on Second Avenue near East Sixth Street, she grabbed both backstage images and performance shots. Her work first appeared in publications like The East Village Other, an alternative newspaper, but before long it was turning up in Rolling Stone and mainstream magazines, including People and Life.

The author Holly George-Warren, who as editor of Rolling Stone Press used Ms. Rubenstein’s photographs in “Trouble Girls: The Rolling Stone Book of Women in Rock” (1997) and in her own books, said Ms. Rubenstein’s pictures stood out.

“Raeanne could zero in on an artist’s essence and capture that with her camera,” she said by email. “These usually guarded people opened up to her, and there’s often a playful quality to her images.”

The documentarian Ken Burns found Ms. Rubenstein’s photographs of country music stars similarly compelling. He used them in his “Country Music” series, seen this year on PBS.

“She had a great ability to capture a moment,” Mr. Burns said by email, “whether it was Dolly Parton on her tour bus or Janis Joplin onstage, and we were fortunate to meet her and have access to her files.”

Ms. Rubenstein often said that the key to a good celebrity photograph was establishing trust, something she almost always managed to do.

“I’ve got a warm spot in my heart for everybody with the exception of one or two,” she said of her many subjects in a 2000 interview with The Tennessean. “The ones that gave up the goods, I like the best.”

She was born Rae Anne Rubenstein (she later merged the first two names) on Sept. 15, 1945, on Staten Island. Her father, Isidore, owned the Tudor Furniture Company, and her mother, Sylvia (Grossman) Rubenstein, taught elementary school.



Credit…Raeanne Rubenstein/The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum


Credit…Raeanne Rubenstein/The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum

After graduating from Curtis High School on Staten Island, Ms. Rubenstein attended the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, where her friends included Lita Eliscu. Upon graduating in 1967 Ms. Rubenstein went to London for a time, while Ms. Eliscu stayed stateside and became a journalist, often writing about celebrities. When Ms. Rubenstein returned to the United States in the late 1960s, taking up residence in the East Village, the two reconnected, and Ms. Rubenstein had her entree.

“I would go along and take pictures of the people she interviewed, and then the magazines inevitably would need art to go with their story,” Ms. Rubenstein recalled in a brief oral history recorded for a website dedicated to The East Village Other, for which both women worked.

“I met Andy Warhol when I was her tag-along,” she said, and she photographed him numerous times over the next decade, her pictures appearing in various publications. “In a way,” she added, “I became the go-to person for Andy in the straight-journalism world because he would always say yes to me.”

She immersed herself in the New York music and arts scene, mixing portraiture, posed composition and action photography.

“Her ability to get in close with her subjects and to move through very unusual and different circles is part of the reason we have such a good photographic record of the counterculture of the 1960s,” Claudia Dreifus, another East Village Other alumna and now the writer of the “A Conversation With” feature in The New York Times, said by email. “She was there always — very much on the scene, and yet she still kept a wry distance.”

Ms. Rubenstein photographed numerous rock stars, but soon, again accompanying Ms. Eliscu on an assignment, she had her first exposure to a different type of music: that being played in Nashville. Johnny Cash, who from 1969 to 1971 starred in a television variety show filmed at Ryman Auditorium, then home of the Grand Ole Opry, was the article’s subject. She often told the story of finding herself in an empty Ryman, a fish out of water taking in the strange new world, biding her time while Ms. Eliscu went to look for Cash.

“I didn’t know anybody there,” she says in “Country: Portraits of an American Sound” (2015), a documentary by Steven Kochones about the photographers who helped shape country music’s image, “so I was sitting there waiting, and all of a sudden there was this tap on my shoulder, and I looked up and, oh my God, it was Johnny Cash. And he said, ‘Hello little lady; can I help you?’”

Marty Stuart played in Cash’s backing band before becoming a country star himself. In the documentary, he credits Ms. Rubenstein with helping to bring the genre increased prominence by virtue of her stature as a rock photographer.

“Raeanne coming in the early ’70s, when country music was struggling to find its way into the mainstream, and then taking it back to her world was almost like having a correspondent,” Mr. Stuart says. “It gave country music a voice.”

Ms. Rubenstein went on to photograph decades’ worth of country stars. Among the series of photography books she published were “Honky-Tonk Heroes: A Photo Album of Country Music” (1975) and “Gone Country: Portraits of Country Music’s New Stars” (1997). In 1998 she moved to Nashville permanently, founding an online entertainment and style magazine called Dish.

Although singers and bands got a lot of her attention over the years, her photographic subjects stretched beyond the music world to include figures as different as Rodney Dangerfield and Muhammad Ali. In a video interview with the syndicated show “World of Photography,” she talked about the difficulties of photographing busy and sometimes fickle celebrities.

“You really don’t know when you’re sent what you’re going to find,” she said. “And not only that, you don’t know what conditions you’re going to find. Are they in a good mood, a bad mood; do they have pimples; are they in a rush?”

She recalled an assignment to shoot Don Johnson when he was starring in the 1980s television series “Miami Vice.” Because she wasn’t sure when he would have a break from filming, how much time she would get with him or how he would want to be photographed, she had three different setups ready: in the lobby of a hotel near the beach where he was shooting, at the hotel swimming pool and on the beach.

“If Don Johnson had five seconds, or 10 seconds, or a minute, Raeanne Rubenstein was going to be ready,” she said. She finally got him by the pool, but not for long: “Our photo session lasted exactly eight frames.”

Ms. Rubenstein’s marriage to Richard Gordon Burns in 1981 ended in divorce. She is survived by two brothers, Martin and Alan.

Friends said that Ms. Rubenstein was well served throughout her career by an unquenchable curiosity. An example: In 1984 she photographed the singer Cyndi Lauper for a People magazine cover. Ms. Lauper, a fan of professional wrestling, took her to a match, a first for Ms. Rubenstein. The next year Ms. Rubenstein came out with a new book: “Wrestlin’: Pro Wrestling Close Up.”

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Written by deadceleb


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