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Milton Rogovin, 1909-2011
by Jack Foran
He cared about the people few cared about. He called them the “forgotten ones,” the Hispanic and Yemeni and Native American people of the Lower West Side. The steel workers in the mills that are gone now. Photographer and poet Milton Rogovin died Tuesday at age 101.
His work was in the social documentary tradition of Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine, but with differences from both of those pioneers of the genre. Whereas Riis was sometimes accused of intrusiveness into the lives of the immigrant poor, in Rogovin’s photos of the Lower West Side denizens there is a sense of the photographer as welcome guest in their homes and lives.
And whereas Hine recorded the exploitation of workers, particularly child workers, in a day and age before laws to regulate and forbid the worst industrial practices, Rogovin’s emphasis is on the dignity of the work and worker. Granted the conditions were different. These were considered good jobs in the steel mills (and look even better now that they have disappeared) and the workers were glad to have them. But that isn’t to say that the work wasn’t backbreaking and exhausting.
Rogovin’s work is all about dignity, of the people he photographed, of the work they did, of the lives they lived. The photos are carefully composed portraits, often as diptychs and triptychs to show the interconnection of the work situation and home life, the linkage between seemingly different worlds. No other photographer did this, or at least with such clarity and artistic candor.
Rogovin was a young Buffalo optometrist and a man with a lively social conscience until his activities caught the attention of Senator Joe McCarthy and his House Un-American Activities Committee, which had the effect of collapsing the optometry business, which caused him to resort to photography as an avocation and ultimately vocation.
His plied his photographic trade in Buffalo and around the world, frequently collaborating with writers of similar sociopolitical views, such as Chilean poet Pablo Neruda.
Most recently, he collaborated with local Native American poet Eric Gansworth, one of whose poems about one of Rogovin’s photos noted another history of American photography connection. Namely, to photographer of the American West and Native American peoples Edward S. Curtis. But again with a difference.
The photo is of a young couple in a room, likely on the Lower West Side, complete with ancient overstuffed furniture, a space heater, and wall décor of a Jimi Hendrix poster and assorted pinups. The poem talks about the photo documenting of how this couple was “not like those Indians/Edward Curtis imagined through his lens,/they were not vanishing, not going/anywhere…”
Dignity and permanence, Rogovin recorded in his photos, amid whatever vicissitudes.
Rogovin’s work is in major collections locally and around the world, including the Albright-Knox Art Gallery; the Burchfield Penney Art Center; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; and the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
Rogovin’s frequent depiction in the diptychs and triptychs of subject and spouse could be taken as a tacit tribute to his own spouse, noted educator and author of educational materials for children with and without learning disabilities Anne Rogovin, who died in 2003.
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