It took an optometrist to bring forgotten people of this world into focus. The downtrodden of Buffalo, N. Y., the poor of South America and coal miners from around the world have been given dignity and honor through the photographs of Milton Rogovin.
All this month, 83 of Rogovin’s photographs will be on display at the Oak Park Public Library. The exhibit includes remarkable images of everyday people that the social documentary photographer has taken over a 50-year period.
Rogovin, who is 95, is unable to travel from Buffalo for the exhibit but he couldn’t be happier about the attention his photos are receiving. The Library of Congress already houses 1,300 of his prints and negatives, and the Getty Museum in Los Angeles housed a recent exhibit. Rogovin also continues to sell books during autograph sessions at his local grocery store.
Rogovin’s son, Mark, who lives in Forest Park, arranged the exhibit at the library. A few years ago, Mark was asked by Milton and family members to curate his collection of photographs. So far, this has involved book projects, a biography, a documentary film and traveling exhibits. “Our goal is to use all of my father’s photo series in educational programs,” Mark said. “In five years, we want a curriculum for each series on the Internet in four languages. That would fulfill my parents’ dream.”
The photographs are valuable educational tools. Rogovin took photos of some of his subjects over a 30-year period. The “Triptychs” series contains images of residents of Buffalo’s Lower West Side taken at roughly 10-year intervals. Students who are studying Rogovin’s work are asked to compose stories to explain the changes between one photograph and the next. For example, one triptych shows a grandfather pushing an infant girl in a stroller. The next shot shows the grandfather with his arm around the girl who is now 12 years old. The final image is that of the 19-year-old standing behind her grandfather’s wheelchair. It’s a testament to Rogovin’s respectful manner that he was invited back into people’s homes year after year.
It’s hard to believe that photography was only an avocation for Rogovin. The social historian was born in New York in 1909. After graduating from Columbia University with his degree in optometry, he got a job in Buffalo and became a charter member of the United Optical Workers Local 951. Marrying the boss’s daughter, Anne Setters, might make Rogovin sound conventional. But picketing your own employer/father-in-law certainly wasn’t. Rogovin was mild-mannered but his politics were militant.
After getting fired, Rogovin set up his own office in Buffalo, primarily to serve union members. His dedication to the labor movement was galvanized during the Depression and Rogovin became a Daily Worker-reading communist.
In 1942, Rogovin bought his first camera and won his first photography prize a year later. During World War II, he served as an optometrist for the Army. During the Cold War, Rogovin became even more involved in union work and political action. His voter registration efforts in Buffalo’s black community prompted the FBI to place Rogovin under surveillance.
It was in this African-American community that Rogovin first stumbled on social documentary photography. A music historian asked Rogovin to take a photograph for an album cover. The optometrist visited small storefront churches to find subjects. “My father was amazed at what happened in these little churches,” recalled Mark. “He was so struck by the visuals”the sacred spaces, the preaching and the trances”he continued photographing in these churches every Sunday for three years.”
Rogovin found a kindred spirit in black activist and scholar W.E.B. DuBois. DuBois had written about the empowering elements of the storefront churches and Rogovin met with him in New York City. DuBois even wrote the introduction to Rogovin’s first photography article.
“A social documentary photographer takes photographs over a concentrated period of time to document a certain human condition,” Mark explained. “His church series covered three years but other series went on for 30 years.”
Rogovin may have been non-threatening enough to be allowed to take flash photographs during church services but his own government saw him as a threat. In 1957, he was summoned before the House Un-American Activities Committee. He refused to answer any questions and was branded “Buffalo’s Number One Red” by the local press. As a result, Rogovin’s children were shunned and his practice suffered.
His wife, Anne, who worked as a special-ed teacher for the Buffalo public schools, also became a Cold War casualty. She was kept from teaching in Buffalo schools for refusing to sign a “Loyalty Oath.”
In the meantime, Rogovin was taking black and white shots with his Rolleiflex camera with 2 ¼-by-2 ¼-inch negatives. When taking a photograph, he looked down into the lens, which was less intimidating than pointing a camera at his subjects.
“He never posed his subjects,” Mark said. “He would ask them where they wanted their picture taken and ask them to look at the camera. As a result his subjects are relaxed and natural. They know they’re being appreciated, not exploited.”
Anne, the “social butterfly” of the family, would accompany her husband on these impromptu photo shoots. The secret to their success was returning to their subjects a week later with a gift of the finished photographs.
Rogovin had converted an old coal chute into a darkroom and made prints almost daily. “He would hang up his latest photo on a bulletin board next to the family dinner table,” Mark recalled. “And we would critique them. Sometimes, my sisters and I got to go with him on his shoots.”
In 1962, Storefront Churches came out and Rogovin turned his lens to coal miners in West Virginia. For the next nine summers, the Rogovins returned to Appalachia to interview and photograph the miners at work and at home.
In 1963 they found themselves on Native American reservations in the Buffalo area, photographing more of this country’s “forgotten people.”
In 1967, renowned poet Pablo Neruda invited Rogovin to his seaside home in Chile. Rogovin then traveled to the island of Chiloe for a series that would later accompany Neruda’s poems. While there, he photographed a young mother and child. The shot graced the cover of the book and became famous as “The Madonna.” Through some incredible luck and effort, this woman was recently found. Sadly, her child had passed away only a few years after the picture was taken.
Rogovin started his “Lower West Side” series in 1974. By this time, he’d switched to a twin-lens Rolleiflex camera. Others were taking notice by now, with Rogovin having his first major show and teaching his brand of photography at the State University of New York at Buffalo. In 1978, he retired from optometry and became a full-time photographer.
To complete his “Family of Miners” series, the Rogovins traveled to France, Germany, Scotland, Spain, Czechoslovakia and Zimbabwe to photograph miners. These images are arresting because Rogovin photographed the miners in their grimy workplaces, as well as in the cleanliness of their homes.
In 1984, they made the first of three trips to Cuba to photograph miners and factory workers. They also traveled to China and Mexico to capture images for the series.
Rogovin’s photos received more attention as he won awards. Seven of his photographs of working people are on permanent display on a monumental scale in a Buffalo subway station. Rogovin couldn’t ask for a more appropriate “gallery.”
In 1992, his photos of working people were displayed at the Smithsonian and Rogovin began receiving honorary degrees. The former “Number One Red” in Buffalo was given that city’s Citizen of Distinction Award. In fact, The Buffalo News named him one of the 20th century’s “top 10 local cultural figures.”
By 1997, cataracts were affecting his eyesight and Rogovin dismantled his darkroom. He also sold his historic camera to a local photographer. But after successful cataract surgery in 2000, he was able to buy the camera back. His vision restored, Rogovin returned to the Lower West Side to photograph his subjects a fourth time. “Triptychs” became “Quartets.”
Rogovin’s work continued to gain popularity. A 2003 documentary on “The Forgotten Ones” won first prize at the TriBeCa Film Festival. It was around this time, though, that Rogovin lost his beloved life partner to cancer. Milton and Anne had been married 61 years.
Feeling a bit lonely, Rogovin finally allowed a television set to be brought into his home. “My father had feared it would do something to his eyes,” Mark explained. “Besides, there had always been something better for our family to do.” Rogovin watches Charlie Chaplin’s old films; once banned in the United States, Rogovin had driven his family to Toronto to watch them.
Rogovin the old radical still revels in the memories of his remarkable life. Even though he sees his appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee as a terrible experience, “I have to thank them,” he said, “for moving me toward photography.”
Documentary photographs by Milton Rogovin, along with poems and a 12-minute documentary film, are on exhibit at the Oak Park Public Library, 834 Lake St., through November. Call 383-8200 for information.