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Milton Rogovin’s Approach: Photography, Class, and the Aesthetics of Making Space

An edited version of Joseph Entin’s paper to the American Studies Association Conference. Read the full version at

Working closely with his wife Anne, Milton Rogovin undertook a range of projects to document people he refers to as “the forgotten ones”: workers, the poor, indigenous peoples, people of colour.

In 1978, he closed his optometric office in order to do a photo series in Buffalo area manufacturing plants, entitled Working People, which was completed between 1976 and 1987. Many of the portraits in his series were diptychs: pairings of one photograph taken of an individual on the job, and one at home.

In the most basic sense, Rogovin’s portraits explode the reductive images of working people circulating in much of the period’s mass culture. But more significant than the image of workers is what Rogovin’s diptychs have to say about the act of looking and the art of photography.

As commentators have noted, one of the features of Rogovin’s photographs are the confident poses and direct gazes his subjects display. They typically look straight into the lens, exuding an air of relaxed self-assurance. Rogovin’s photographs are the product of patient, self-conscious exchanges between photographer and subject. They strike a balance between intimacy and distance, revelation and deferral.

The subjects look directly at us, yet we are aware that their self-presentation is in some degree theatre, governed by conventions and pre-pared 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, self-consciously posed and composed themselves for the lens.

Such camera work clearly puts Rogovin at odds with Susan Sontag’s image of the photographer as a potentially sadistic agent of control.

Rogovin aims, as he explains, to allow his subjects to shape their own images: “I wanted to get close and make the people be the most important thing in the frame. I never directed them or told them where to stand, how to hold their hands or what to wear. The only thing I asked is that they look into the camera. When you look at these pictures, you know there was no monkey business, and that I was not sneaking around trying to steal pictures of people.”

This fundamentally cooperative aesthetic, Rogovin acknowledges, invites a measure of aesthetic indeterminacy. “As a rule,” he 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.”
Rogovin’s photography balances the documentary desire to grasp and present, to “capture” an image of the “Other,” with a commitment to holding back in order to allow his subjects space to shape the photographic process. His practice is a form of “approach,” to borrow a term from Carol Shloss, that resists even as it engages. We might call this an aesthetic of “making space”: a photographic method that creates room for subjects to actively participate in the production of their own images rather than stand as passive objects before a colonising gaze.

The freedom that Rogovin gives to his subjects produces some potentially surprising juxtapositions, such as the elderly foundry worker holding a kitten (left), an icon of vulnerability, in his right hand, while his wife stretches her arm around him. Several other diptychs offer striking discontinuities between work and homes photographs.

In this diptych, the woman offers up a jaunty pose and sly smile, a huge gear thrown casually over her shoulder, suggesting a confidence, even a playfulness, at work; in her home shot, where she is the only adult, she has placed herself to the side and smiles more neutrally, giving her children centre stage, with the image of the lion in the upper right hand corner perhaps to signal her protective stance and prowess.

In the work photograph in this diptych, the woman is cast as a figure of immense strength (pictured below). 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 us, but her eyes are obscured behind dark goggles, and she doesn’t smile. She is a commanding presence: a powerful, skilled person who takes her work seriously. Her home photograph, by contrast, is marked by the broad smiles she and her sons display, and the ease and comfort they exude with one another, and, it seems, with the photographer. This (apparently) single black mother — a figure so often vilified in Reagan-era “family values” discourse — here appears as a responsible, loving parent and an accomplished worker.

The space Rogovin creates for his subjects’ self-expression flows in part from his use of a Rolleiflex camera, which has a top-side view finder. Rogovin notes: “I liked the twin-lens Rollieflex with its waist-level format because it allowed me to look down into the camera. This was a much better way of making photographs as I was sort of bowing in front of my subjects, and this creates a different kind of interaction than aiming the camera directly at them.”

Rogovin’s work reminds us of photography’s limitations even as we grasp its powers. 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,” a synthesis. Rather — and this is especially true of the diptychs that present rather dramatic contrasts in demeanour or posture or expression from one half of the diptych to the other — we are left wondering about what we don’t see. And this wondering, I think, encourages us to consider the complexity, the richness, the inestimable intricacies of the lives depicted, intricacies which the camera can hint at, but cannot finally deliver.

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Image detail: Gary Ramage