Roosevelt Review: Gage Gallery's thought-provoking social documentary photography
10 years. 25 Exhibits. 75 Photographers. Thousands of vistors.
Roosevelt University’s Gage Gallery at 18 S. Michigan Ave. in Chicago opened on Sept. 13, 2001, two days after the nation’s worst terrorist attack.
The debut exhibit featured the sobering work and lecture by artist Ben Golden, who was too young to fight in World War II, yet was old enough to remember and confront the war’s atrocities. His series of black-and-white photos were of modern-day Dachau, Germany, and the remnants of its camps.
“I remember it being a sedate opening night because of Sept.11, but the work was quite thoughtful in the way it confronted the Holocaust and the past,” said Michael Ensdorf, a Roosevelt University communications professor, photographer and the creator and curator for Roosevelt’s Gage Gallery.
Nearly 10 years later, the gallery has gained a reputation for presenting thought-provoking photo exhibits on some of the most difficult issues confronting humanity – the impact of war, the effect of the global recession on poverty, the realities of street violence, the plight of the mentally ill. The newest exhibit, The Working-Class Eye of Milton Rogovin, which runs through June 30 at the Gage Gallery, has been in some ways the most challenging for Ensdorf, who put the show together with help from researchers Erik Gellman, assistant professor of history and board member of the co-sponsoring Center for Working-Class Studies, and Jack Metzgar, Roosevelt University professor emeritus and one of the leading experts on labor history in America.
“Milton Rogovin is known all over the world for his photography of working-class people. His work raises questions about the dignity of the working class, and our challenge has been to find images that have never been seen in public before and to present them in new and thought-provoking ways,” said Ensdorf.
Ensdorf, Gellman, Metzgar and Rogovin’s son, Mark, sifted through more than 1,000 images taken over the last half century by the recently deceased photographer to find those that tell important and compelling stories about work.
“Over the years, people have asked permission to show specific series of my father’s work or they have said, ‘You decide what you want exhibited,’” said Mark Rogovin. “This show is different and very exciting for my family because it’s one of those rare times when organizers of a show took the time to choose the images themselves and to exhibit them uniquely through the lens of the working-class eye,” he said.
Gage Gallery got its start in 2000 as part of the University’s plan to build classrooms, offices, lounges and reception space at the Gage Building where the Evelyn T. Stone College of Professional Studies, the College of Education, the Walter E .Heller College of Business Administration and the Departments of Communication and Computer Science and Information Technology are currently housed.
“Originally the Gage Gallery was going to be a gathering and meeting space,” said John Allerson, the University’s former chief financial officer who is now retired. Allerson remembers Ensdorf approaching him with the idea of using the first-floor space for a University gallery. “He was interested in exhibiting different kinds of work, including that which would best reflect the University’s mission of social justice,” Allerson recalled. “I remember support ing the idea by putting some money for it in the budget.”
Since then, the gallery has put on an average of two shows a year including an attention grabber called The Promise of Public Housing, which Ensdorf co-curated with artist and educator Kathy Pilat and public housing historian and Roosevelt University Associate Professor Brad Hunt.
While researching his book, Blueprint for Disaster: The Unraveling of Public Housing, at Chicago Public Housing administrative headquarters, Hunt stumbled upon some dusty old filing cabinets and unmarked boxes in a storage area. With Ensdorf’s help, the historian recovered hundreds of old advertising and public-relations photographs, illustrations and diagrams depicting what life was supposed to be like at a time when public housing developments were first growing up as an experiment in the city of Chicago and around the nation.
“When I approached Mike with the idea, I thought it would be as easy as printing up copies of some of these photos and tacking them to the gallery’s walls,” said Hunt, who found out otherwise. Under Ensdorf ’s and Pilat’s direction, hundreds of hours were spent meticulously studying, categorizing and uncovering details about each individual image.
“The big thing for me was that I learned something. I now know that photos are not just research documents. They have value and they can shape debates,” said Hunt. The exhibit went on to receive widespread coverage in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune and many other publications. TV and radio prominently featured The Promise of Public Housing, which was reported on from the Gage Gallery by, among others, WTTW-TV Chicago Tonight host Phil Ponce.
The research Hunt did for his book and the exhibit thrust Hunt into the national spotlight as a leading public housing expert, landing the Roosevelt professor on CNN, NPR and other national programming. In addition, the 2005 exhibit launched Gage Gallery into its own limelight, putting it on the radar as a most desirable space to show high-quality work with social-justice implications.
“It showed people at the University and around town what this space could really do,” said Ensdorf. “It was a turning point and it opened t he door for us to be able to do what we want, which is documentary photography in line with the University’s mission of social justice.”
Gage Gallery isn’t publically funded and doesn’t receive public arts grant funding. As such, over the years, there have been few strings attached to what can be shown there.
“A lot of galleries do social documentary work, but few of them are willing to take up topics that many would rather ignore than look at and consider,” said Carlos Javier Ortiz, an award-winning documentary photographer whose black-and-white shots of the aftermath of iolence on Chicago’s west and south sides were show n last year at Gage as part of the show, Violent Realities.
Curated by Ensdorf, the show also featured colorful images from Guatemala City, which were not for the squeamish – a murdered gang member lying in a pool of blood, a wounded, shirtless teen whose torso is inspected for its bullet wounds, a body being carr ied away from a crime scene, a wide stream of blood running from the victim’s head along the street pavement.
“It’s definitely one of the first places in the United States that showed the work, and I applaud Mike Ensdorf for taking it because all of us need to see and understand why someone might want to migrate here from a place like Guatemala,” said celebrated documentary photographer Jon Lowenstein, whose work was also part of the Violent Realities show.
“We see a lot of imagery in the U.S. today, but there’s not a lot of support for the kind of in-depth imagery and documentary work that people, and especially students, need to see to confront issues and make social change happen. Gage is showing those kinds of images,” added Lowenstein.
The list of renowned documentary photographers who have exhibited at Gage Gallery is impressive. It includes big names like: Nina Berman, the 2007 winner of the World Press Photo Foundation and Pictures of the Year awards, whose Homeland project on America’s fixation with security and anti-terrorism was exhibited at Gage in 2008; and Eugene Richards, considered by many to be the top social documentary photographer in the world, and whose heart-wrenching and shocking show, A Procession of Them: The Plight of the Mentally Disabled, was at Gage in 2009.
The show, which featured images of mentally ill and mentally disabled patients warehoused in deplorable conditions in psychiatric institutions around the world, drew record crowds and media to Gage, including a rave review from New City magazine, which has rated A Procession of Them, Violent Realities and Homeland as among last year ’s top five, must-see shows in Chicago.
Bringing some of the world’s top photographers, including Richards, to the Gage Gallery to talk about their work has created a buzz about the gallery, including standing-room only crowds on opening nights, said Juli Rowen, assistant dean and promotions coordinator for the College of Arts and Sciences and the Gage Gallery.
“I think our events at the gallery have been gaining us visibility and we’ve certainly seen growing numbers of people in attendance at our opening receptions and artists’ lectures,” she said.
Roosevelt alumna Susan Rubnitz, a generous financial backer of the gallery who regularly attends the gallery’s opening night receptions, said she’s been touched by every show she’s seen, but perhaps none moved her as much as the recent Richards’ show.
“I’ve always been interested in social justice issues, whether it’s how we deal with prisons, child abuse or race, and I thought it was about time someone shed light on mental illness, which we should be treating like we do p hy s ical il ln ess . It’s b ee n a long t i m e co m ing,” sai d Rubnit z, who is also a generous supporter of The Working-Class Eye of Milton Rogovin.
The gallery’s reputation and success also have been furthered by collaborations with community partners like WBEZ’s Chicago Amplified, Chicago’s CAN-TV, Roosevelt’s Mansfield Institute for Social Justice and Transformation and the Joseph Loundy Human Rights Project.
“Mike Ensdorf has an amazing ability to bring to Roosevelt University the exhibits that speak to our history of social justice while remaining true to presenting shows that are of the highest quality,” said Heather Dalmage, sociology professor and director of the Mansfield Institute. “With these exhibits, it’s not about answering questions. It’s about raising questions and making people think about different realities and standings all over the world. It’s really powerful.” Over the years, exhibits at the Gage Gallery have engaged thousands of viewers, many of them Roosevelt University students, who have learned through images to think in different ways.
“It’s one of my favorite spaces on the Chicago Campus. It brings us together around meaningful topics in interesting ways and allows our students to generate their own topics and their own questions and answers,” said Bethany Barratt, associate professor of political science and director of the Joseph Loundy Human Rights Project.
For the 2011-12 year, Gage Gallery will present exhibits related to prison and incarceration issues. The fall show by photographer Taryn Simon will focus on exonerated Death Row inmates, while the spring exhibit, also on incarceration issues, still was being planned at press time.
For more information and/or to become a donor of the Gage Gallery, contact Michael Ensdorf at 312-341-6458 or at email@example.com.