In the early to mid-1970s, I was living in Buffalo. Having grown up in the NY/NJ area, and pretty much mired in the overpowering megalopolis of NYC, the contrast of Buffalo, against what I was familiar with, was striking. Make no mistake. Even though the city is officially in the state of New York, Buffalo is very much a part of the great Midwest. For me, it was extremely different. In the winter the sun NEVER came out. It was a city that had a small town feel. The foods had different names. There were even foods served in restaurants up there that nobody thought of back then (they don't call them Buffalo Wings for nothing). The accent? The total opposite of a New York accent. A Buffalo accent is the same as a Chicago accent--the A's cannot possibly get any flatter.
In those years, I was a stranger in a strange land. We had no money. We barely eked out an existence. Naturally, I did the only thing I could do: I made art. And my art reflected my experience. It was dark and it was pensive.
Fresh out of college, I had left painting and drawing behind for fiber art, because the trauma of an obnoxious art program made me want to flee from what I knew. And so, I began to create in cloth the very figures I had always drawn. The odd thing was this: as unfamiliar as it was, Buffalo was the perfect place to really get in touch with myself and my aesthetic.
And THAT is where Milton Rogovin came in. I had been making cloth figures for about a year when I discovered his photographs. I was already familiar with the work of Diane Arbus. I found her photos tremendously inspiring. But Rogovin's work touched me in a way that made for a shift in my thinking. What I learned from Milton Rogovin is that portraiture is best when in context. That is to say, that the things that people surround themselves with or the things that hover in the background, are as much a statement about who the persons are, as are their actual faces. And his work contained a more positive, and less depressing "feel." The picture above was part of the collection of his work that first caught my eye in the mid seventies when I was still living and working on the north side of Buffalo.
His work influenced me even more in my years as an editorial illustrator. The work I did in the early to late 80s was filled with the kinds of images that might have been pictures taken of actual people by Mr. Rogovin, had they been real and not out of my imagination. I like to think that I channeled his way of thinking into my art as an illustrator, as I had done as a fiber artist.
What I also love about Rogvin's work is that it has much less "photographer presence." His ego does not get in the way. His subjects seem to shine forth on their own with a power and confidence, no matter their social standing, for there is an astonishing lack of judgment on his part while he captures them on film.
Milton Rogovin has just passed away at the age of 101. That I should read about his death on the very day that my Sketchbook Project is to arrive at the ART HOUSE Co-op is totally appropriate. Almost eerie, since I think the lessons I learned from his work all those years ago are evident in my sketches of today. I guess when all is said and done, we do not stray very far from our artistic roots.
His was a life filled with the appreciation for the kinds of people who are often unsung. Do yourself a favor and check out his work. There is a wonderful slideshow at the NYTimes, along with audio from Rogovin, here. I did blog about him at some point, but I cannot locate that post. Oh, well. He was a youngster then, and still in his nineties.
As for me, I will take his passing at this particular time as a sign to continue to make art, from my heart, and in the very non-commercial way that I did 35 years ago. Thank you, Mr. Rogovin.