In the monolithic and ungenerous expanse of art history, documentary photography, and photography writ large, maintains a protozoic presence among canonical disciplines of painting, and sculpture. Documentary photography has long sought to convey the twin peaks of truth and sublime; through the tenement slums of immigrant New York, the grit of Depression Era America, and, by turns, the new American landscape found beyond the crest of the Mississippi River. The depiction of harsh reality, married to the sublime of industrial decay characterizes the photography of Milton Rogovin, as he sought to eek out the truth of Buffalo in the latter half of the twentieth century.
As a city with an industrial pedigree, Buffalo felt the pinch of automation and mechanization across a number of industries through the twilight of the twentieth century. As one of the most racially divided and self-segregated cities in America, this decline disproportionately affected communities of color, who occupied a diaspora of ethnic niches throughout the city. The American Dream, however, was not in short supply for the people that Rogovin photographed from these communities in both individual photographs and series that revisit the same family over a period of twenty years. The body of work presented in Community: The Photography of Milton Rogovin, at the Buffalo Center for Arts and Technology, traces Rogovin’s fascination with his home city, and attempts to bridge the unceasingly disjointed East and West sides of Buffalo.
The site of the exhibit, the Buffalo Center for Arts and Technology (BCAT), is a contemporary touchstone for many of the same communities that Rogovin photographed over the span of his career. Offering courses in technology and art making to those that they may not ordinarily reach, BCAT serves as a nexus for the East and West sides of Buffalo. Sitting on Main Street, and a stone’s throw away from commercial art galleries, residential blight and the blooming medical corridor, the center becomes a physical embodiment of what Rogovin’s photographs sought to do; to stitch together disparate communities and present the unvarnished truth of individual experience before the leveling gaze of a camera lens. Appending the exhibit are a pair of wheat pasted murals by Max Collins, a longtime fan of Rogovin’s work, and an artist whose photographic practice seeks to do many of the same things as his spiritual predecessor. The murals, taken from Rogovin’s photographs of residents from the East and West sides, are transplanted into opposite communities in an effort to further bridge the gap still present within Buffalo to this day.
Rogovin’s most notable body of photographs in this exhibit comes in the form of his Storefront Churches series from the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. From these photographs we can see bodies in reverent worship, hands raised in the ardor of belief, and can almost hear the chorus of voices emanating from these spaces of worship carved from the everyday. It is this sense of community, built from the grassroots and imparted to generations, which Rogovin sought to capture and exalt; this is the spirit of Buffalo.
Inspired by Pablo Neruda’s “forgotten ones”, Rogovin’s photographs capture honesty and beauty through the presence of the real; these photographs are made timeless because they impart a slice of reality, transferred through time, speaking about people who are our neighbors, and people who represent what is often shunned from a camera’s gaze and the withering scrutiny of time. Through the work of this exhibit; Collins’ aforementioned murals, and the sale of photographs benefitting BCAT programming, Rogovin’s work reminds us that the challenge of building the City of Good Neighbors is never complete.
Community: The Photography of Milton Rogovin is on view now at the Buffalo Center for Arts and Technology through June 3, which is located at 1221 Main Street, Buffalo, New York. Following their de-installation from BCAT, a selection of the photographs from the exhibit will be on view at the Benjamin Gallery through June 23. More information can be found at benjamangallery.com and the entirety of the exhibit can be seen on the Resource:Art page of Artsy.