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Everybody was Kung Fu fighting

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Art and privilege have a lot in common. To produce images, you must be connected to the apparatus that allows images to be made, disseminated, and seen. When dealing with images of the underprivileged, the artist is responsible for the context in which the images will be viewed. For some, it may be just enough to know that the images were made and that certain conditions exist. Then again, we also want to look.

            Many parallels have been drawn between Milton Rogovin and other documentary photographers. But perhaps most instructive is the line drawn to Lewis Hine, who in 1904 began to photograph immigrants coming to Ellis Island. Hine's goal was to mitigate the many misconceptions held by Anglo-Saxon Americans about certain immigrants. His photographs not only imbued the immigrant with dignity, but also became crucial evidence for social welfare agencies advocating reform campaigns.

            And therein lies a critical connection: Rogovin's photographs of "the Forgotten Ones" --- people with "great potential" who were victims of such adverse social conditions that "nothing comes of that potential" --- remind us of our common humanity.

            Perhaps it's because of his own impoverished upbringing (he was raised during the Depression) that Rogovin expresses a heartfelt sensitivity in the "simple, straight-forward way" he photographed the denizens of Buffalo's Lower West Side, one of the city's poorest communities. Or maybe it was due to his political activism. (After World War II, Rogovin organized the Buffalo chapter of the Optical Workers Union and served as librarian for the Buffalo Communist Party.)

            And so it was in 1972 at the age of 63 that Rogovin focused on the residents of this six-block neighborhood, on people like Johnny Lee Wines and Zeke Johnson getting down to the tune "Kung Fu Fighting," or a steel-plant worker at rest, or a young boy named Edward Santiago. Then, in 1984, Rogovin returned to the neighborhood and set out to re-photograph his previous subjects. Apparently, many of the people he'd photographed more than a decade earlier were still around and gamely agreeable to being photographed again. It became something akin to a family affair. Children who were just babies or, better yet, just a twinkle in the eyes of their parents, were now the visible markers of the passage of time.

            Rogovin located the steel-plant worker at home with his pregnant wife and a black lop-eared rabbit. Edward Santiago was now a young father of two little boys. Another eight years later, Rogovin found the steel plant worker at home with his (again) pregnant wife, this time with a seven-year-old son and a lop-eared rabbit. The wife jokingly remarked: "Picture Man, every time you come I'm pregnant. Please do me a favor, don't come again!" As for Edward Santiago, he'd been to prison for three years, earned a GED, and had recently been reunited with his two boys. And he's smiling.

            Finally, as a coda of sorts, Rogovin returned one more time in 2001. Edward Santiago has an even bigger smile and even bigger "boys." The text that accompanies this set of four photographs reveals that Santiago thinks he's "aged pretty good" and is "actually [getting] better-looking through the years... like wine... better with time." In his own way, in his own world, he has triumphed.

            Edward Santiago-as-subject may be a product of the voyeuristic impulse. But I'm not convinced that was at the direction of the photographer. I have to believe in the subject's autonomy. Otherwise, he and all the other individuals that opened their hearts and homes to the "Picture Man" have, in essence, been twice victimized, like the ragged and grimy migrant workers pictured by Dorothea Lange or the muddied miners in Sebastião Salgado's work.

            After all is said and done, Rogovin's photographs are a testament to his eye and his art. But they also leave you with a sense that life does indeed go on.

The Forgotten Ones: An Exhbition by Milton Rogovin is on display through January 11, 2004, at the Rochester Contemporary, 137 East Avenue. Hours: Wednesday through Friday, 12 to 6 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 1 to 5 p.m. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays. 461-2222.

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