Nov 05, 2009 Nancy Keefe Rhodes Uncategorized
Milton Turns 100
You want to notice what goes on in the foreground of a Milton Rogovin photograph, along the bottom edge that a less attentive photographer might have cropped away and beneath the more obviously compelling faces in his portraits. There often runs the line that underlies the photograph’s gravity or the detail that creates an echoing lyricism. In pretty much the first image you encounter at ArtRage Gallery’s new exhibition of 49 of the Buffalo optometrist-photographer’s work, we see a barefoot Mexican woman combing sheep’s wool on a device that uses enormous nails. Light floods the dingy room as she leans into her work, illuminating her powerful shoulder and the line of her hip and leg. We don’t see her face. This is all shot from below, over the top of a pile of finished wool, its strands luminous and graceful as a sea wave, and as quietly startling in the gloom — the outcome, after all, of her labor.
On the back wall — part of Rogovin’s “Quartet” series of Buffalo families shot four times over a period of 40 years (expanded yet again following his 1994 book, Triptychs) — the grandparents of Joey pose with him at his baptism, the lush white of the infant’s lacey baptismal gown torrential as a waterfall between their darkly clad, heavy torsos, richly evoking both the city’s landmark and new life’s momentum. On the third wall, a miner and his wife sit in their kitchen. The edge of the table closest to us anchors the image and its sharply angling corner, both lustrous with reflected light, pull us right into its center.
Elsewhere a Chinese miner against a brute brick wall clasps a flashlight in his hands along that bottom line as delicately as a secret message. A little further a thin and elderly miner — proving that fragility is a relative thing — in one image seems dwarfed next to earth-moving equipment but then sits with his wife, cradling a tiger kitten much frailer than he inside his hands.
The Rogovin images have been up all week. Last Saturday night they retreated discreetly as ghosts against ArtRage’s Halloween scary movie marathon, but in Sunday’s mid-day fall sunlight they held their own, small Black-and-white prints, none much larger than seven or eight inches square. Gallery director Rose Viviano was organizing a mailing at folding tables in the center of the room and said that she still had the wall text to get up.
Rogovin turns 100 next month. His career as a photographer really began after he was called to testify in 1957 before the House Un-American Activities Committee during the McCarthy era “Red scares.” When the publicity effectively destroyed his optometry practice, he “decided to speak through photographs,” documenting the lives workers and street people and their families — “the forgotten ones,” as he called them in the 2003 book by that title — both in his native Buffalo and in a dozen countries. Rogovin’s remembering involves repetition — the longitudinal series as well as a taste for pairs of images. Miner Joe Kemp’s sweaty chest in the mine shaft sits next to his family portrait in front of a white Christmas tree; the blackened face of a helmeted female miner beside her bouffant blond hair style and pristine white poodle.
He’s also collaborated with others in his many photo books — radio journalists in Buffalo, the poet Pablo Neruda in Chile, and now with the Native American poet Eric Gansworth (also last year’s guest poetry editor for our own Stone Canoe) in a book out this week, From the Western Door to the Lower West Side.
Also to come in time for this Saturday’s opening reception are the poetry and photographs produced in response to Rogovin’s images by students from Nottingham High School and the Emerson J. Dillon Middle School and John C. Birdlelough High School in Phoenix. Central New Yorkers are familiar with efforts over the past several years to use student photography in schools as a literacy tool, perhaps the best known of which was that initiated at Ed Smith School in conjunction with the Light Work exhibition of photographer Wendy Ewald, who notes in her 2002 book, I Wanna Take Me a Picture, that she often begins such workshops by showing students Rogovin images.
What may be less well known is the role that Syracuse Cultural Workers, whose publishing offices and store are right around the corner at 400 Lodi Street, has played in promoting Rogovin’s work. On Sunday, SCW director Dik Cool said that he and Rogovin’s son Mark “go way back — since the 70s.”
“Mark was a founder of the Peace Museum in Chicago and a muralist too,” Cool said. “When we started the Cultural Workers in 1982, he consulted with us and then carried some of our work at the museum. Gradually he talked to me about his father — I’d never heard of Milton — and sent me a book or two. He felt his father’s work was under known. In 2001 or 2002 the Cultural Workers were doing well and we had the luxury of doing some extra things. I decided to popularize Milton’s work. We produced a poster — we haven’t done many vanity posters with the artist’s name on them — from his ‘East Side of Buffalo’ series, one of the lesser known, and six note cards. We began to carry all the books available on Milton — at that time maybe five or six. We wanted to become the source for all things Milton. We’ve done a couple spreads in our annual catalog and one on his wife Anne, who died about ten years ago. His stuff has not sold well, but as he becomes better known it will.”
This exhibition, which has been to maybe a dozen or 15 other venues so far, is also a SCW production.
“That was after I tried to book an exhibition,” Cool said. “There was only one that traveled and it cost maybe ten or fifteen thousand. The people we want to see this can’t pay that, so we put this together. Mark works pretty much full-time now on his father’s photos and he’ll be here next month for the screening of the new film on Milton, which came out about a year ago at Lincoln Center in New York. We went down to see it.”
You won’t have to go so far.
“The Picture Man: Photographs by Milton Rogovin” is on view through 12/19, with the opening reception this Saturday, 11/7 at 7:00 PM, at ArtRage Gallery, 505 Hawley Ave. (corner N. Crouse), artragegallery.org or 315.218.5711. On Thursday, 12/10 at 7:00 PM, Mark Rogovin introduces the screening of Ezra Bookstein’s documentary about his father, “The Rich Have Their Own Photographers.” See the trailer for this film and more of Rogovin’s photos at cnylink.com — click A&E. Nancy covers the arts. Reach her at email@example.com.