Thursday, March 08, 2007

Milton Rogovin




©Milton Rogovin, from Triptychs, 1972-1994

One of the best portraitists of our times, Milton Rogovin, has received the Cornell Capa Award and I thought I would just make mention of it here, though both Jim Johnson and Alec Soth have commented on this remarkable photographer whose simple, direct gaze has furnished some of the most powerful portraits of our time. His simplicity is the key to his vision and the enduring interest of his work. While I agree that his focus on "the forgotten ones" is something that distinguishes his imagery and certainly has served as an important guiding theme, I do not believe that we can define the value of this remarkable body of work solely in terms of his abiding interest in the common man.

One of my favorite books of his is in fact Triptych, a marvelous journey through time and space. It is a very strictly defined time and space, too, perfectly in keeping with the highly detailed and specific nature of the gaze he turns on people. This is Buffalo's Lower West Side, over a period of three consecutive decades. Photography by its very nature is a meditation on evanescence, on passing -- we photograph what is there for a split second and gone. The trace that remains on our negatives or our sensors forms a curious record of reality, since it testifies unequivocally to the momentary presence of that particular set of objects in time and space, and yet is itself a chimerical imposture conjured up out of a multitude of compositional elements that ultimately form the photographer's perspective. A portraitist like Rogovin keeps his intervention to a minimum, and there is no doubt that he must think of himself as one who hews to an objective viewpoint--no postmodern irony here regarding the nature of representation. The concept underlying Rogovin's relation to his subjects is more naive but no less profound, because it yields perhaps one of the most intimate and human portrayals of the passing of time that I know of. A terser, more poetic look at The Ages of Man would be hard to find.

It is interesting to compare Rogovin with his predecessors, particularly someone like August Sander. While Sander was interested in a kind of typology of his society (and it is important to note in passing that his photographic genius saved his work from being a mere catalogue of social types), Rogovin is clearly interested in the individuality of his subjects, their inexorable quiddity, and this little trip through three decades of Buffalo time provides ample evidence of the inexhaustible curiosity and sympathy Rogovin bears for each of his subjects. Each triptych, in its way, is unique. One would think that such a rigid formula would vitiate the effect of the portraits and create a monotonous rhythm, but I can find no lapse of interest or energy in the series.

One of Rogovin's virtues is that he brings us back to a very simple truth, that the simple act of looking squarely at something can yield profound pleasure and understanding, that taking the time to actually look instead of peruse or scan as we are wont to do is in the end the essence of photographic revelation. Our Kodak moments are lacking not so much because they are artless but because they are thoughtless, the product of a reflex snap of the shutter. Instantaneity is not necessarily an advantage: thought comes dripping slow, and the photographer is caught between two very different rhythms whenever he or she lifts the camera to the eye. The accumulated weight of culture and history and temperament presses against the flimsy shutter with inexorable desire, while the lure of quick gratification -- the lynchpin of our consumer culture -- has induced in us dismayingly itchy trigger fingers. Snapping is at once so facile and so fraught with conflict and possibility. Salman Rushdie once observed that a snap was a moral decision taken in an eighth of a second. The decision only appears split-second; but it, like the moral it captures, is, or ought to be, the fruit of history, of reflection, of deliberate cultivation, perennial and persistent like the olives of centuries old trees. Rogovin's patient and painstaking collection of humanity in the coils of circumstance is a testament to the power of dwelling in this contemplative attitude, wherein the blink of the shutter is an almost unconscious or natural consequence of a profound intuitive grasp of the momentousness of the mundane.


Andrew Hillard said...

The meditive act of looking, the poetry of irony, the fragile quality of a moment. Like a tiny grain of sand slipping through ones fingers.
Thanks Jon for your inspiring post on Milton Rogovin.

Jon Anderson said...

Thank you for reading! well put Andrew.