This short film celebrates the life’s work of photographer Milton Rogovin, who was 93 when this film was shot. After being blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s and subsequently losing his optometry practice, Rogovin dedicated his life to photographing the residents of a depressed six-block area in his hometown of Buffalo, New York. Rogovin’s first series of portraits of Lower West Side residents was completed in 1972. Over the next twenty years, Rogovin returned two more times to re-photograph his subjects. The film follows him as he returns one more time to the Lower West Side to take a fourth in his series of once-a-decade portraits.
Benjamin Genocchio Milton Rogovin, Photographer, Dies at 101 The New York Times, January 18, 2011
Milton Rogovin, an optometrist and persecuted leftist who took up photography as a way to champion the underprivileged and went on to become one of America’s most dedicated social documentarians, died on Tuesday at his home in Buffalo. He was 101.
He died of natural causes, his son, Mark Rogovin, said.
Mr. Rogovin chronicled the lives of the urban poor and working classes in Buffalo, Appalachia and elsewhere for more than 50 years. His direct photographic style in stark black and white evokes the socially minded work that Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange and Gordon Parks produced for the Farm Security Administration during the Depression. Today his entire archive resides in the Library of Congress.
Mr. Rogovin (pronounced ruh-GO-vin) came to wide notice in 1962 after documenting storefront church services on Buffalo’s poor and predominantly African-American East Side. The images were published in Aperture magazine with an introduction by W. E. B. Du Bois, who described them as “astonishingly human and appealing.”
He went on to photograph Buffalo’s impoverished Lower West Side and American Indians on reservations in the Buffalo area. He traveled to West Virginia and Kentucky to photograph miners, returning to Appalachia each summer with his wife, Anne Rogovin, into the early 1970s. In the ’60s he went to Chile at the invitation of the poet Pablo Neruda to photograph the landscape and the people. The two collaborated on a book, “Windows That Open Inward: Images of Chile.”
In a 1976 review of a Rogovin show of photographs from Buffalo at the International Center of Photography in Manhattan, the critic Hilton Kramer wrote of Mr. Rogovin in The New York Times: “He sees something else in the life of this neighborhood — ordinary pleasures and pastimes, relaxation, warmth of feeling and the fundamentals of social connection. He takes his pictures from the inside, so to speak, concentrating on family life, neighborhood business, celebrations, romance, recreation and the particulars of individuals’ existence.”
Milton Rogovin was born on Dec. 30, 1909, in Brooklyn, the third of three sons of Jewish immigrant parents from Lithuania. His parents, Jacob Rogovin and the former Dora Shainhouse, operated a dry goods business, first in Manhattan on Park Avenue near 112th Street and later in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn. After attending Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, the young Mr. Rogovin graduated from Columbia University in 1931 with a degree in optometry; four months later, after the family had lost the store and its home to bankruptcy during the Depression, his father died of a heart attack.
Working as an optometrist in Manhattan, Mr. Rogovin became increasingly distressed at the plight of the poor and unemployed — “the forgotten ones,” he called them — and increasingly involved in leftist political causes.
He began attending classes sponsored by the Communist Party-run New York Workers School, began to read the Communist newspaper The Daily Worker and was introduced to the social-documentary photographs of Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine.
Mr. Rogovin moved to Buffalo in 1938 and opened his own optometric office on Chippewa Street the next year, providing service to union workers. In 1942 he married Anne Snetsky before volunteering for the Army and serving for three years in England, where he worked as an optometrist. Also in 1942, he bought a camera.
Returning to Buffalo after the war (his brother Sam, also an optometrist, managed the practice in his absence), Mr. Rogovin joined the local chapter of the Optical Workers Union and served as librarian for the Buffalo branch of the Communist Party.
In 1957, with cold war anti-Communism rife in the United States, he was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee but refused to testify. Soon afterward, The Buffalo Evening News labeled him “Buffalo’s Number One Red,” and he and his family were ostracized. With his business all but ruined by the publicity, he began to fill time by taking pictures, focusing on Buffalo’s poor and dispossessed in the neighborhood around his practice while living on his wife’s salary as a teacher and being mentored by the photographer Minor White.
His wife, a special education teacher, was a collaborator throughout his career and helped him organize his photographs until her death, in 2003.
Mr. Rogovin’s photographs were typically naturalistic portraits of people he met on the street. “The first six months were very difficult,” he recalled in a 2003 interview, “because they thought I was from the police department or the F.B.I.”
But he gradually built trust, giving away prints of portraits in exchange for sittings. He never told his subjects what to do, allowing them to pose in settings and clothing of their own choosing.
“These aren’t cool sociological renderings but intensely personal evocations of a world whose faces are often missing in a culture that celebrates the beautiful and the powerful,” Julie Salamon wrote in The Times in 2003 on the occasion of a Rogovin exhibition at the New-York Historical Society.
Mr. Rogovin began his Storefront Church series in 1961 at the invitation of a friend, William Tallmadge, a professor of music at State University College at Buffalo who was making recordings at a black church on the city’s East Side. The success of the series encouraged Mr. Rogovin to devote more and more time to photography and persuaded him that photography could be an instrument of social change.
In 1972 he earned a Master of Arts in American studies from the University at Buffalo, where he taught documentary photography from 1972 to 1974. The next year he held his first major exhibition, at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo.
In the next years his photographs were published in several books and widely exhibited; a show of his work is currently on view at the Gage Gallery in Chicago. Many are in the collections of museums, including the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The Library of Congress acquired his archive in 1999.
In addition to his son, of Forest Park, Ill., Mr. Rogovin is survived by two daughters, Ellen Rogovin Hart of Melrose Park, Pa., and Paula Rogovin of Teaneck, N.J.; five grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
In his later years, as his health declined, Mr. Rogovin used a wheelchair and no longer took photographs. In 2009 he was nominated for a National Medal of Arts but was not selected.
His activism, however, was undimmed — he attended political rallies and antiwar protests into his final years — and his social conscience remained acute.
“All my life I’ve focused on the poor,” he said in 2003. “The rich ones have their own photographers.”
Editor’s Note. Thanks to Louis Proyect for bringing the sad news of Mr. Rogovin’s death to our attention.