Shadowing Rogovin: Retracing Family of Miners, Scotland 1982


Shadowing Rogovin: Retracing Family of Miners, Scotland 1982

In 2014, I was in Bilston, a former mining village in Midlothian, where I had heard about a celebrated but short-lived miners’ social club known locally as the Casino. I was visiting the location as part of initial research, for what I had hoped would be a new photographic project. Bilston’s vernacular style of housing has similarities with other Scottish mining villages and small towns. This alone might have accounted for that strange feeling of deja-vu when I viewed the photographs of the American social documentary photographer Milton Rogovin (1909-2011) for the first time in the Print Room of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh. Looking at his monochrome portrait of an unidentified man crouched down among his prized onions, I was drawn to the background detail of garden sheds and houses. Was I, inadvertently, over 30 years later, following in Rogovin’s footsteps? This portrait, in common with all 56 of his photographs in the National Galleries of Scotland’s collection, has a simple yet evocative title, Family of Miners, Scotland 1982. The photographer purposefully did not provide specific names of individuals or locations. For Rogovin, this is the viewer’s role: ‘Once you have studied the pictures for awhile, they begin to speak […] I’ll have to ask you to write your own captions. Look at them closely. Look into the people’s eyes and let them speak. They tell you about their lives.’

In this essay I discuss a photographic project in development. By focusing on its research process to date, I reflect on a series of photographs made by Milton Rogovin (1909-2011) who travelled through the Scottish coalfields for three weeks in 1982. Within two years of his Families of Miners, Scotland 1982 the miners’ strike (1984-85) took place. Over 30 years later, the cultural and physical landscape of his photographs has dramatically changed. Drawing from Milton Rogovin’s photographs and his own words about his practice, this photo-essay begins to explore how the processes of looking back, revisiting, and retracing touch upon the collective memories and social histories of others.

Bird, Nicky. ‘Shadowing Rogovin: Retracing Family of Miners, Scotland 1982,’ in Studies In Photography, 60-69, The Scottish Society of the History of Photography. Summer 2020. ISSN: 1462-0510

TOP IMAGE: Untitled, 2018. Photograph by Nicky Bird with John Doolan, 2018.