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"From the Western Door": Rogovin's photos, Gansworth's text

They're two of Western New York's most important living artists.

One is a renowned photographer and social documentarian--a former optometrist and political activist who turned to photography after being professionally "blacklisted" during the McCarthy Era.  His stark, unsentimentalized depictions of poor and working class people living on Buffalo's East and Lower West Sides over three decades (especially his "Remembering The Forgotten Ones" series)  are increasingly recognized as among the finest portfolios of 20th century documentary photography ever produced.  Even as he approaches his 100th birthday on December 30th of this year, he remains vitally engaged in the arts community and with causes that promote social justice.

The other, an artist and writer less than half the age of his compatriot, is an enrolled member of the Onondaga Nation who was raised on the Tuscarora Indian Nation in Niagara County.   Over the past two decades, he has transformed himself from a self-supporting Buffalo State College student into an award winning, nationally recognized poet and novelist, a leading figure in Native American literature, and the Lowery Writer-in-Residence at Canisius College.

Listen to Gansworth read selections from "From the Western Door to the Lower West Side."

Now these two artists of conscience, Milton Rogovin, whose photographs are in the permanent collections of over two dozen of the world's most prominent museums as well as the Library of Congress, and Eric Gansworth, whose 2006 novel Mending Skins won the Josephine Miles Award for outstanding multicultural literature from the PEN Oakland Center, have collaborated on From the Western Door to the Lower West Side, a new book of Rogovin's photographs of Western New York based Native Americans and their families over three decades with accompanying poems and text by Gansworth.  The book is published by White Pine Press, the venerable, award-winning Buffalo based independent publisher.

The official launch for the book is this Sunday, October 25th, at 2 the Burchfield-Penney Art Center on the Buffalo State College campus, where Gansworth will read from his text to an accompanying slide show of photographs from the book, many of which first appeared in "Milton Rogovin: Native American series, 1963-2002," an exhibit that appeared the Castellani Museum in Niagara Falls and the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society in 2007.  Rogovin himself is expected to be on hand for the event.

In "Two Rows," the most essay-like of his narratives accompanying Rogovin's photos of Native Americans on Western New York's two Haudenosaunee reservations as well as Buffalo's Lower West Side neighborhoods, Gansworth writes of the initial trepidations he had in taking on this project:

Though I had previously had only minimal exposure to [Rogovin's] body of work, I understood the great dangers inherent in such a project. There was first, naturally, the long and complicated history of American Indians and others who have portrayed us in photographic media, manipulated to the photographer’s desires, rather than the subject’s. While not uncommon (Who has not been instructed by a photographer to move this way or that?), it is still fraught with complications...

That difficulty was largely thanks to Edward Curtis’s aesthetic campaign to insist that the American Indians he photographed were part of a vanishing culture. I still have people commenting to me about his lovely and “powerful” (always “powerful”) portraits of American Indians, completely oblivious to the fact that Curtis manipulated and posed his subjects to make them appear as if they belong to cultures which were
dying. The long debate concerning cross-cultural relationships between artist and subject also has been particularly lively in the last couple of decades.

...As a writer who works in fiction as much as poetry, I often insert my imagination into the lives of others—the barely seen gesture, the overheard whisper, the violated secret—these are all seeds of potentially wondrous stories. I understood though, looking at the people and places in these photos, even some I knew, that fabricated and manipulated versions of their lives were not the compositional process that was called for...

In the end, it was the power and emotional directness of Rogovin's photographs themselves and the implicit narratives contained within their trajectory over time that Gansworth responded to:

Milton’s method of documenting people and places—recording them the way they wanted to be remembered—was my key to finding words. I was interested in, for lack of a better phrase, the mise en scène of the images, the places the subjects had chosen to be photographed and the manner in which they chose to inhabit those environments. These images were the antitheses of formal studio portraiture manipulation.

Here, no professional doctoring had taken place.The subjects posed where they wanted, in places that held some meaning for them, and in clothes they wished to represent them, in clothes that reflected daily life, not formal occasions.

For Gansworth, himself a widely exhibited painter and visual artist, writing an accompanying text was less a matter of "imposing stories" on the photographs than simply looking at them closely with formally skilled and culturally sensitive eyes and interpreting the signs and visual cues that were already present in the images.   In explaining the metaphor underlying the book's title he writes:

The primary architecture of the Haudenosaunee is the longhouse, a rectangular building with an eastern door, a central fire, and a western door. Used initially for living, it is now largely used ceremonially and socially. Because of its significance, some cultural iconography reflects this building’s structure. An organizing Haudenosaunee idea is that the territory is one giant metaphoric longhouse.

In this view of the territory, Mohawks guard and live at the Eastern Door, Onondagas tend the Central Fire and Senecas keep the Western Door. Initially, the Cayugas and Oneidas were inside, and eventually, the Tuscaroras were added as well.  I was keenly aware of this aspect of our shared culture when realizing a quality of Milton’s body of work.

Though the two sets of images were shot in the same period of time, the Longhouse’s Western Door of Seneca reservation culture was distinctly different from the lifestyles of Buffalo’s Lower West Side, the neighborhood many people migrated to when their families left the more rural reservation homes. In seeing that relationship, I had a new and clearer lens on the work. Consequently, I had a better sense of culling a consistent and thematically truthful narrative for this work, without making too many assumptions about specific people within the photos.

Now, with the images chosen, I have gone back, with the same stance I had before, trying to find that space where these photos and these poems will run parallel lines, as equals, informing each other and sharing space, alive in their tension and grace—two rows defining themselves and each other.

The cross-generational, cross-cultural partnership of Rogovin and Gansworth speaks to all of us as we attempt to reclaim the sense of a living past: a cultural heritage that informs us but doesn't limit us, that affords each of us our individual dignity even as it reminds us how much our stories have in common.


--R.D. Pohl



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