Ernestine Ruben is a new personal hero of mine. We met a few months ago while we were both reviewing photographer’s portfolios in Bratislava, Slovakia, and we became fast friends. She then invited me to participate in a workshop she was conducting. Her way of working, and the results she achieves, made me a fan for life.

There is a playfulness in her images that draws the viewer in, and demands careful study. The flow and ebb of plastic space is twisted, distorted and puzzling. But it is accomplished “simply” with shadows, light, cropping and framing. They lead to discoveries that delight the engaged mind.

It is remarkable to learn that she waited until she was 48 years old to begin her career in photography. She became practically an overnight success. Twenty-five years later, she continues to push the limits of photography, break new ground and to reinvent herself and her work.

Ruben grew up in a fortunate home that was frequented by painters, sculptors, architects, designers and modern thinkers. Instead of toys and dolls, she had abstract art and mobiles to spin her imagination as a young child. So it seemed quite natural for her to study and teach art for many years, and then, just as easily, to dive into photography later in life and create truly wonderful abstract images from the outset.

She makes the bold claim that photography is the most abstract of art forms. When challenged on that statement, she replied: “Photography is abstract because it starts with a given — what the camera records. The challenge is to transcend that. If you think about it, photography is really deductive, because what makes it interesting — and abstract — is what you take away. It’s very much the way a sculptor works… While photographing bodies, for instance, I want to create new bodies in the shadows.”

Ruben is energetic and restless, continually exploring new ideas and new ways to work with old and new forms. Some of the early photos here inspired members of the Mark Morris Dance Company to create new body shapes and shadows for her to photograph. That collaboration grew to the creation of whole new dance pieces with dancers interacting with projections of her photographs.

She is currently photographing landscapes, then working the prints with her hands and gum dichromate to capture the foggy web-like vision of someone who is slowly losing her acute vision. A frightening reality for anyone, but especially for someone who delights so much in looking and seeing.

Visit her website (www.ernestineruben.com), to learn more about her work. And if you can, track down any of her books, most of which are unfortunately out of print.

— Jim Casper