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Mural project brings Rogovin's work back into focus

In a career that spanned half a century, Milton Rogovin made powerful portraits of hundreds of Buffalo residents at home, on city streets and in churches, factories and bars.

Though few figures in the history of Western New York art loom larger than Rogovin, the famous documentary photographer's work has been difficult to find in Buffalo since his death in 2011.

That changed this week with the installation of two larger-than-life murals based on Rogovin's portraits on the west and east sides.

The project, headed by photographer and public artist Max Collins and completed with the help of students from the Buffalo Center for Arts and Technology, also features an exhibition and sale of rare Rogovin prints opening Friday in the center's lobby at 1221 Main St.

The exhibition and murals, collectively titled "Community," were organized by Resource:Art, a local art consortium that represents Rogovin's estate in Western New York.

Collins and Resource:Art worked with Rogovin's son Mark to coordinate the project. He will speak at a VIP preview party for the exhibition on Thursday night.

"My parents Anne and Milton always talked about giving back to the community, and they didn't talk about it like they wanted to give $50 back to a neighborhood or $1,000 back," Mark Rogovin, who looks after his father's estate, said in a phone interview from his home in Chicago. "They wanted to help strengthen communities."

A Milton Rogovin photograph shot between 1972 and 1977 on Buffalo's Lower West Side is part of an exhibition of his work in the Buffalo Center for Arts and Technology.

On the West Side, where Rogovin was often seen toting his camera from house to house, a long red fence in a community lot owned by PUSH Buffalo features an excerpt from his famous "Lower West Side Triptychs" series. The trio of portraits, shot over more than 20 years, shows a smiling young mother and her daughter in three distinct phases of their lives.

A wall at The Foundry, a studio and workshop space for artisans at 298 Northampton St., features a partially completed mural based on portraits from Rovogin's popular steelworker series. One shows a female welder at work; another shows the same woman at home with her two sons.

The planned completion of the mural was delayed by Monday's storm, but students from BCAT will work with Collins to finish the lower section of the mural sometime in the next few weeks. As part of the project, many of those students have also been working on their own projects based on Rogovin's street photography in a class led by Buffalo photographer Michael Mulley.

Collins, who conducted workshops with BCAT fine art and photography students in preparation for the murals, said he has long been contemplating a project based on Rogovin's work. His interest in the photography began as a child, when he would page through his mother's copy of Rogovin's "Lower West Side Triptychs."

A portrait of an East Side woman from the early 1960s by Milton Rogovin is on view in the Buffalo Center for Arts and Technology's exhibition "Community."

"There's something beautifully simple to the whole format of the triptychs. I remember seeing that and thinking of it almost as a storybook," Collins said. "There's kind of a populist vein in his process, who he photographed and the content of his work that I felt aligned very much with my own intentions as an artist wanting to do public work."

Collins and Rogovin said they hoped the project would be the first in a new wave of recognition for Rogovin's work, which chronicled the lives of working people and marginalized communities in Buffalo and around the world.

Collins' work is temporary by nature -- meaning that the paper on which it is printed will disintegrate and blow away within a year or so. But he sees that as an opportunity.

"I'm hoping that this is the beginning of a longer series," Collins said. "I think these could exist elsewhere and obviously these aren't going to last forever. I think this fits in nicely as Buffalo is progressing and transforming at this seemingly rapid rate."

A detail of Max Collins new mural at 460 Massachusetts Ave. features three panels from Milton Rogovin's " famous "Lower West Side Triptychs" series. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

"I think it will show off the communities, the people and it'll lead to something else," Mark Rogovin said. "Eventually, along the line, there will be other students, other photographers who will keep doing similar projects."

The BCAT exhibition, featuring 25 signed Rogovin prints, runs through May 25.


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