Burchfield Penney Art Center - Table of Contents

Visits to Appalachia
By Victor Shanchuk Jr.
Curatorial Assistant, Burchfield Penney Art Center

Except from the "Burchfield Penney Art Center at Buffalo State College Grand Opening" Catalog, November 22, 2008

Photographer Milton Rogovin's interests are the common men, women and children - workers and their families - throughout the world. In his photographs, he records their lives as they are lived and captures the inner light of individuals as he is staring into their souls. And through his passion for the truth, he engages others to experiencethe personal circumstances and social conditions he documents.

In 1962, Rogovin met Donald Rasmussen, M.D., who was researching the cause of black lung disease among the miners of Appalachia and who later became an advocate for miners' rights. In Appalachia, a mountainous region stretching from southernNew York State to northern Alabama, more than 20 million people lived in geographic and social isolation, creating a disparate culture of individuals impacted by similar social and economic conditions.

The meeting between Rogovin and Rasmussen became the catalyst for what would become nine summers between 1962 and 1971 that Rogovin and his wife, Anne, spent in Appalachia. There, Rogovin documented the lives of miners and the problems they faced each day, including black lung disease, mine explosions and premature death.

The Rogovins' genuine interest in their subjects, as well as their empathetic temperaments, helped them develop trusting relationships with many of the miners and their families, who let the Rogovins into their world to capture their lives on film. During those Visits to Appalachia, Rogovin took 2,350 photographs, resulting in 160 prints. The Appalachia Series has been included with images from the Family Miners Series, from 10 countries around the world that the Rogovins visited.

Rogovin's images deal with physical structure, poses, gestures, posture - the actions or non-actions of his subjects. He quilts simpleunits of visual meaning into more complex, unified compositions, emphasizing harmony and unity over imagination and invention.This is evident in his interior rooms and his exterior spaces: oddly placed election signs, objects on a porch framed by wooden pillars, cars and washing bins mysteriously suspended in space. It is through this arrangement that he reinforces the social context of his work. He forces us to see what is unseen and in studying his photographs, viewers find order, serenity and moral content.

While the subject naturally takes precedence in his work, Rogovin's photographic compositions are also the result of a thoughtful structuring of elements. Every artist, independent of medium, has a dominant compositional aspect in his or her work, a "signature" design component used in a conscious or unconscious way. In Rogovin's case, it is the central vertical that dominates and sometimes divides his images, resulting in monolithic figures in the center of his photographs, framed by rectilinear elements. His interiors, void of people, employ a similar vertical influence.

The Appalachia Series is filled with darkness, the reality of survival, the fortitude of the human spirit, the sweetness of innocence, and tenderness - often expressed through the touch between a father and a son, or a mother and her child. Pride is evident, as is individual strength, often viewed within the intimacy of the internal environment. The individuals are static but heroic, the family ideal filled with humility and pride. The photographs are intuitive, based on the artist's feelings about capturing a moment of unpretentious expression - this is Rogovin's vision.

In his work and in his life, Milton Rogovin has remembered the common people. They've let him into their hearts, and he has rekindled in them a sense of freedom and recognition.

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