A friend was supposed to join us at this retreat, but couldn’t come because of illness. She would have loved the presentations, especially the one this morning. Milton Rogovin was an optician in Buffalo New York who started taking images of the poor and dispossessed: a direct reflection of his involvement in what he called “the radical movement.” The film began with an image unchanged even after so many year: the New York Times, with ads for expensive Tiffany jewelry right next to images of war and poverty and destruction. That dissonance moved Milton to take out his camera to try to stir people into caring when his voice was silenced, and his livelihood nearly destroyed, in the HUAC years following the Korean War.
A few years ago, I probably would not have looked at the images because I would have heard the story. Politically, I’m on the other end of the spectrum from Milton Rogovin. Spiritually, probably not so far as I might have imagined in former times. I was struck as I saw the progression of his life and art unfold that Milton Rogovin held an uncommon spot in salvation history. His images are often of people on the edges of life: the poor, pimps, prostitutes, drug dealers; or of blue collar families: miners, steelworkers, mothers, fathers, children.
One of his first series was of worship in African American churches. So many of those images, and ones he later took in Appalachia, were framed around an image of Christ, often tattered, always looking on. His later images didn’t have the same context. Was it a change in time, a change in the people he photographed, or a change in Milton Rogovin that Christ vanished from the pictures? Whatever the reason, Christ was still on the other side of the lens. Rogovin exemplifies the adage Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est.
Which brings me to my own sea change. My political views haven’t changed much; I am the balance at the other end of thought to people like Rogovin. But now I see the fulcrum on the beam and I see the purpose it serves: to bring into unity and balance the disparate gifts we all have so that we can love and serve each other, freely and without fear. I realize that without each other, Milton Rogovin and I are sure to make a great hash of even the best intentions. Only together can we even hope to do something good.
I see the same terrible tragedies that Rogovin did; I simply disagree how best to remedy them. But I respond, deeply, to that shared vision of dignity in spite of adversity, of human worth that extends beyond utility. I envy his ability to enter so completely into the lives of those he photographed, even if briefly.
We have different roles. Milton Rogovin and I. Different gifts, different insights, different pieces of the puzzle, and the trick is to get that seesaw to balance perfectly on the tip of the fulcrum. These days, fear prevents that.
It is fear that makes us demonize each other, one person casting the epithet “Red,” the other “Fascist.” It is pride that makes us believe we have all the answers. It is the adversary that scatters us so far apart that we can never find that point of balance, free from fear.
My friend and my husband and I are on opposite ends of the see-saw. But they, both being photographers who speak through their lenses, make images that meet in the balance. Maybe what we need these days is more images. Less talk.