The man behind the camera Milton Rogovin at CAM

By Bruce Adams

From Rogovin’s Native American Series.

“To photograph people is to violate them by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically processed.”
—Susan Sontag, On Photography, 1977

On the face of it, social documentary photography asserts authenticity. Ostensibly, the photographer objectively records humans in their natural condition, sometimes functioning as ethnographer by chronicling the traditions, customs, daily life, ceremonies, and people of particular cultures. There is the implied promise of representational fidelity; after all, the camera simply captures what is in front of it, right? But, what’s in front of the camera depends on who is using it, and so social documentary work is inexorably linked to political objectives.

A picture may not lie in the strict sense of the word; the potential for deception exists in the ambiguity of the association between photographer and subject and the likelihood that the subject will undergo some—as Susan Sontag suggests—symbolic processing. This is no small point. Since its invention, photography was touted as a dispassionate mechanical process of objective representation, free from human bias, and to some degree, we are conditioned to believe this. Yet for just as long, photography has been used to manipulate viewer perceptions. (The photographs of the Farm Security Administration come to mind.) Photographic images can be made to transcend, enhance, or falsify “facts.” They can be subversive in their ability to inflame passion.

It cuts both ways, too; in the social sciences the “observer effect” refers not only to viewer bias, but also to the way people’s behavior changes when they are observed. This double-edged sword throws into doubt whether social documentary photographers symbolically process their subjects, or their subjects deliver processed goods, or both. These issues of authenticity are amplified when a member of one culture or ethnic group documents another, and it is against this dense backdrop that social documentary photography must be viewed.

The same questions simmer just below the pictorial surface of the work of internationally known photographer and Western New York resident Milton Rogovin. That they seldom if ever boil up is tribute to the integrity of the artist. Rogovin makes no attempt to sidestep his intent to speak out on social issues through images of people he refers to as “the forgotten ones,” those marginalized by mainstream society and often facing social-economic challenges. His website biography declares that, “…He picked up his camera and began making images that communicated his deep desire for a more just and equal society.” It goes on to list a litany of social issues the artist has addressed.

More from Rogovin’s Native American Series.

In Milton Rogovin: Native American Series, 1963-2002, now on view at the Castellani Art Museum, the photographer turns his camera on members of the Iroquois Nations of New York State and Southern Ontario. The work has never previously been exhibited as a group. Fortunately this debut exhibition—which taps the resources of the Castellani staff, the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society, the Neto Hatinakwe Onkwehowe organization, and writer Eric Gansworth—transcends the boundaries of the original photography, worthy as it is.

Many of Rogovin’s black and white photographs document day-to-day lives of his subjects in a style reminiscent of Depression era photographer Walker Evans, but with less sense of despair: a man with a stoic expression and crossed arms and legs leans against the trunk of his Buick; high school kids pose in the same bad seventies clothing styles we all wore; an old man labors in his woodworking shop. Starkly compelling in their absence of color, they could be high-quality family snapshots. Quite a few images amount to group portraits taken at backyard gatherings; kids in the front, mom holding the baby.

Some images however, stand out for their multifaceted overtones. One, titled simplyNative American Series, Lower West Side, 1974/2007 (all works have similarly ambiguous titles), portrays a young man and woman cuddling on a worn stationary chair beside a gas heater. The man has long hair; a traditional Iroquois style, or prevailing hippie chic? Hard to say. On the wall are several rosy-skinned Playboycenterfolds and a poster of famed African-American guitarist Jimi Hendrix, who went to England to gain success. Christmas cards hang on a doorframe; one features the popular comic character, Snoopy.

By itself, this comical clash of customs serves as commentary on our impossibly amalgamated world in which we are all assimilated into the same cultural stew. Here’s where Eric Gansworth—figuratively speaking—enters the picture. A Native American himself, Gansworth adds an addendum in the form of a poem titled “While Hendrix Played a Solo” that touchingly frames the picture of the couple against “Indian” history, adding multiple dimensions to the work, and deepening its meaning.

More from Rogovin’s Native American Series.

In another instance, photographs that might be viewed as mere still-life studies of hanging “Indian corn,” or a portrait of a woman holding an armful of handicraft tourist trinkets, are transformed by Gansworth’s three-part poem, “How to Make a Corn Husk Doll,” into metaphorical ruminations on season cycles, tradition, and collective memory. These two collaborative works form dual exhibition focal points, and establish a reflective mood for the rest of the show.

Elsewhere in the exhibition—near some images of women weaving basket—two actual handmade baskets are displayed. Viewed in the context of the photo, the functional austerity and simple beauty of the woven containers bear mute testimony to the women’s productivity.

The exhibition includes an interactive element as visitors are invited to write down any stories or recollections of the people and events depicted in the photographs. The upshot of all this is a collaboration between a social documentary photographer and the people being documented, with others contributing to the mix, to provide viewers with a much fuller picture.

Bruce Adams is an artist and educator living in Buffalo.