In December 2009, self-identified “social documentary” photographer Milton Rogovin turned 100. The occasion of his centennial birthday offers an opportune moment to reflect on his career and accomplishments. A political radical who was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1957—at which time he was labeled by the Buffalo Evening News as the city’s “Number One Red”—Rogovin worked in relative obscurity for much of his long career, taking photographic portraits of people he refers to as “the forgotten ones”: the rural poor in Chile, impoverished residents of Buffalo’s Lower East and West Sides, Native Americans and Yeminis living in and around Buffalo, along with steel workers and miners in Appalachia, Asia, and across Europe. Rogovin finally began to receive national (and international) recognition in the 1990s, and in 1999 the Library of Congress acquired his negatives. Yet the critical conversation about Rogovin’s work, punctuated by Melanie Herzog’s 2006 biography of him, Milton Rogovin: The Making of a Social Documentary Photographer, and a small number of scholarly essays, remains in the early stages. His oeuvre has much to tell us about the fate of working people and industrial cities in the latter half of the twentieth century, the changing nature of blue-collar labor, race and gender, as well as documentary photography itself.
One can get a sense of Rogovin’s method by looking briefly at two diptychs from his series “Working People,” showing images of laborers in Buffalo-area manufacturing plants between 1978 and 1987. In the context of the economic and rhetorical attacks on unions and workers that marked this period, Rogovin’s “Working People” series constitutes what Shawn Michelle Smith terms a “counter-archive”—an alternative array of images that challenges the anti-worker ideology of the emerging neo-liberal regime. Even more significant is what Rogovin’s diptychs have to say about the act of looking and the art of photography. His photography of working people exemplifies a form of democratic social relations founded on collaboration and dialogue. The power of Rogovin’s art stems from the manner in which he transforms traditional portrait photography and documentary practice, opening up potentially one-sided visual forms to dynamics of reciprocity, mutuality, and also to elements of uncertainty that underscore the camera’s limitations, despite its immense powers.
Both images: Untitled, Photograph © Milton Rogovin 1978-87, Working People series/Amherst Foundry
The most notable features, perhaps, of Rogovin’s photographs are the confident poses and direct gazes of his subjects. These people are cognizant of Rogovin’s presence; they have paused in their labor and turned to face the camera and address him. (It is this aspect of his method that most readily reflects Rogovin’s debt to Lewis Hine.) In this work portrait, for instance, a hard-working man’s face glistens with sweat, and his shirt is smeared with grease. The walls behind him are grungy and covered with soot, but the picture does not indicate what kind of work he performs; the focus is on the presence of the man himself, which is anchored by the intensity of his gaze. He looks sharply and resolutely into the lens, yet his body is posed easily, almost languidly, as he leans softly on his right arm. In the accompanying home portrait, his face betrays a hint of a smile, but his eyes are, as before, locked on the camera. His casual yet sharp attire and relaxed, even effeminate, pose—with his left hand poised delicately on the sideboard—convey a feeling of calm confidence.
As this image suggests, Rogovin’s photographs are products of patient, self-conscious exchanges between photographer and subject. As such, they strike a balance between intimacy and distance, revelation and deferral. On one hand, the portraits are distinguished by the subjects’ direct engagement with the lens and the frontality and eye-level angle of framing, evoking a sense of immediacy and honesty. Yet, the portraits still manage to maintain an air of formality, a byproduct of conventional framing and posing (especially in the domestic pictures) that generates a certain measure of distance. The subjects may look directly at us, but we are aware that their self-presentation is, to some degree, posture governed by conventions and prepared for our consumption. These photographs do not try to capture—and do not claim to offer—an unadulterated and transparent “truth,” an unmediated or utterly candid view of working-class life. Rather, these are carefully framed portraits of people who have deliberately and self-consciously composed themselves for the lens. “As a rule,” Rogovin explains, “I have no preconceived ideas as to what kind of a face or pose I’m looking for . . . In the few times that I tried to ‘make’ a picture by posing the individual . . . the results were so bad that the photograph usually ended up in the waste basket” (qtd. in Herzog 109). Rogovin relies on his subjects to pose and present themselves, giving them a measure of autonomy that defies the photographer’s control.
Both images: Untitled, Photograph © Milton Rogovin 1978-87, Working People series/Republic Steel
The freedom Rogovin gives his subjects produces some striking discontinuities between work and home photographs. In the work photograph in this diptych, the woman is cast as a figure of immense strength. She is shot slightly from below, which elevates her figure, and her power in the image is enhanced by the thick protective clothes she wears and the long, steel-cutting device that she holds so casually. She looks directly at the camera with her eyes obscured behind dark goggles, and she doesn’t smile. She may even, in fact, be glaring at us. She is a commanding presence: a powerful, skilled individual who takes her work seriously. Her home photograph, by contrast, is characterized by broad smiles she and her sons display. They exude a sense of ease and comfort with one another, and, it seems, with the photographer, too. This single, black mother—a figure so often vilified in Reagan-era “family values” discourse—appears here as a responsible, loving parent and an accomplished worker.
Rogovin’s work reminds us of photography’s limits as well as its potency. To see one picture of a person at work and one at home is not, these images ultimately imply, to assume we have a “whole.” Rather, we are left wondering about what we don’t see, about the gaps between work and home life. This wondering is what encourages us to consider the complexity, the richness, the inestimable intricacies of the lives depicted—intricacies that the camera can hint at, but cannot fully illuminate.
Joseph Entin is an associate professor of English and American Studies at Brooklyn College, CUNY, and author of Sensational Modernism (2007).