The Man Born to Save Photography

Ya'el Morowati
Nov 14, 2019 · 6 min read

2017 was a landmark in the world photography, although few noticed. Nearly two decades after having wiped out film photography, the new smartphones finally allowed people to take photos that were of high enough quality to print. But not before an entire generation was raised without an experience of photographs.

Teenaged Michael Rubin in his darkroom, 1979.

A century of film cameras supported an entire printing industry. And then they all went away, replaced with smartphones, eviscerating the printing infrastructure and easy consumer access to the physical. Where only 40 million film cameras were sold at the industry peak in 1999, last year, 1.5 billion smartphones were sold. But in that pivotal transition in 2017, billions of people could suddenly make photographic prints, if only they realized it mattered. Michael Rubin was paying attention; he was born to save photography.

It’s not overstating it to suggest Rubin was uniquely positioned to accomplish this mission. Born with the right influences and disposition, at 56 he has not only spent an enviable career in preparation, but has dedicated himself to the cause of photography. In 2016, after leaving his role as Senior Innovator at Adobe, he saw the shifting landscape and, hoping to connect regular people to a professional workflow, he launched a new company, Neomodern.

A year later, Neomodern opened a flagship studio and gallery near the Marina district in San Francisco. His team has been using that space to get close to consumers, to research printing and framing behaviors, and to figure out how to capture imagination as he brings his services online.

A photo booth shot of Melvin Rubin and his creative kids (2013). Gabrielle, an artist in Toronto; Danny, a screenwriter (best known for the movie “Groundhog Day”) and Michael, at bottom.

During his childhood in the early ‘60’s, Rubin’s parents began decorating their home with the work of local photographers, in particular surreal multiple exposure prints, long before Photoshop. Moody and sensual images covered their walls, taken by his babysitter’s son, professor of photography at the University of Florida. That professor was Jerry Uelsmann, who went on to become a well-respected and highly collected artist. Uelsmann taught Rubin photography and inspired Rubin’s parents to start collecting, and introducing them to other photographers. It became something Rubin and his father did together. Over the next 40 years the Rubin family amassed thousands of classic works, focusing on midcentury modernism and the prints of many pioneers: Weston, Adams, Cunningham, Kertesz, Cartier-Bresson, and hundreds of others, both historic and contemporary.

Rubin’s entire application to Brown University, 1980.

His application to Brown University gave him a moment of celebrity. In response to the essay question “use the space below to give us as complete a picture of you as possible,” Rubin smeared emulsion on the page and projected an (almost) naked photo of himself. He got into college and subsequently was on the front page of USA Today.

The image hung in the Brown admissions office for decades. And even though he wanted to be a photographer, his parents urged him to keep taking pictures simply for the love of it, and choose another career. Which he did.

Rubin has a history of unorthodox solutions and spotting industry disruptions. He wrote the first complete book about video games in 1981, and tried to get college credit for writing it (they wouldn’t). He published a second book as an undergraduate, a satire on computers, which was a hit; it was reviewed in the LA Times, Playboy and PC World before selling out. His first job after college was working for George Lucas, although he was almost fired his first week for digging around Industrial Light & Magic looking for a darkroom he could use. Still, he became a pioneer of “nonlinear editing” and the digitization of Hollywood. Then, against the wisdom of professionals, he launched the contemporary ceramics industry, revolutionizing ceramic painting and building a chain of studios that are still strong after decades. Years later, his social mapping start up “PlaceBook” was sued by Facebook, because, according to attorneys, the names rhymed, so he suggested that customers simply needed to pronounce the name differently (“PlacéBoök” — although he eventually changed the name.)

His corporate history has always been an anomaly, mostly startups and personal projects, punctuated inexplicably with time at Netflix in its earlier years, and more recently, Adobe. When asked for advice from HR departments at the companies he joined, he was frequently told that he needed to learn to conform. Over the years he’s written a dozen books, made television programs and movies, and lectured internationally. He’s pre-mastered CDs for the Grateful Dead and collaborated with Bernardo Bertolucci. “Netflix was particularly influential on me,” says Rubin. “The culture was remarkable, and the ability to consistently iterate on the product, changed the way I think about products and business.”

Santa Cruz (2004), Rubin working on his book on Lucasfilm and Pixar, “Droidmaker”

In the summer of 2016, Rubin left Adobe to pursue his fine art photography full time, finally. Rubin says it was thrilling to sell his first prints, but was always stunned at how expensive and complex framing was. It took weeks. Multiple trips across town. But Rubin realized that all of the artworks in his family collection were matted and framed in pretty much the same way, and not the way most frame shops worked for consumers: simple wood frames with archival acid-free materials and non-destructive mounting. And while his collection of thousands of prints spanned a wide range of sizes, there were oddly only a few sizes of frames. He realized that what museums do isn’t so much custom framing as custom matting — and by simplifying the options just to the style and quality of museum frames, it actually simplified a process in a way that could make it faster and less expensive. With a little experimentation, he found a high quality photo could be printed and custom framed with one stop, and in about 20 minutes.

Rubin teaching a class at Neomodern.

Rubin offers free classes today to connect people to the cameras we all carry. He co-hosts a popular podcast on photography (“Everyday Photography, Every Day”) and displays selected works from his collection in the Neomodern gallery. But mostly, Rubin is on a mission to revive the hobby of photography, the creative expression with the camera and ultimately the creation of beautiful physical prints. “It’s not photography if you don’t print it,” says Rubin, and he means it. Neomodern embodies his vision to connect people to this great art form before it disappears into the ephemeral.

He says there is a new modernism in photography, a “neomodern” movement that is just beginning. It’s a renaissance in creative picture taking, and Rubin is doing what he can to do to help everyone enjoy it to its fullest.

Ya'el Morowati

Written by

Director Of Marketing And Business Development at Neomodern

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