By Amanda McLaughlin:
Milton Rogovin, acclaimed social documentary photographer, died Tuesday at the age of 101. Rogovin, whose long career would come to make him famous as a champion of the poor and underprivileged, was born in New York City in 1909, and graduated from Columbia University in 1931. In 1938, Rogovin moved to Buffalo, where he established two optometric practices, and married Anne Setters in 1942, the same year he bought his first camera and was drafted into the U.S. Army. A librarian in Buffalo’s Communist Party, he was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1957, and was named “Buffalo’s Top Red” in the Buffalo Evening News. Losing business and facing intense social persecution, Rogovin turned to photography in order to create images that conveyed his desire for a more equal and just society, and to give voice to others who were persecuted, who were invisible to most.
Rogovin demonstrated a new way of seeing; his photos focused on the poor, the abandoned, the cast-away. He found these “forgotten ones,” as he called them, in the ignored miners of Appalachia, in impoverished cities, on Indian Reservations, in the remote corners of China, Zimbabwe, Scotland, and Spain. Rogovin’s first photographic series documented storefront church services in Buffalo, and in 1962, was displayed in famous Aperture magazine. Throughout the 1960’s, at the invitation of poet Pablo Neruda, Rogovin traveled to Chile to photograph the Chilean people; the photographs later joined Neruda’s poetry in a book called Windows That Open Inward: Images of Chile. In 1972, at the age of 63, Rogovin turned his lens towards Buffalo’s historic Lower West Side. His focus: the inhabitants of one of the city’s poorest and most ethnically diverse neighborhoods; following World War Two, the largely Italian-American population had been replaced by Puerto Ricans, African Americans, Native Americans, and Asian peoples, along with remaining Italian families. Rogovin was able to gain the community’s trust, shooting thousands of portraits, and returning to the neighborhood for the next three decades to photograph the same initial individuals and families with each visit. The collection provides unparalleled insight into the lives of the often ignored, marginalized population of Buffalo’s Lower West Side. The series formed the basis for a book, documentary film in collaboration with David Isay, and exhibition in 2000.
Rogovin’s wife Anne, who passed away in 2003, was his longtime collaborator, supporter, organizer, and companion. A special education teacher, author, mother, and activist in her own right, Anne’s good nature and welcoming appearance were instrumental to Rogovin’s photographic endeavors: her gentleness helped open the doors of many homes that would ordinarily be wary of a man with a camera. Rogovin is survived by his son Mark, his two daughters, Ellen Rogovin Hart and Paula Rogovin, five grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.
Milton Rogovin’s artistic legacy is preserved in permanent collections in over two dozen prominent museums around the world, and in 1999 the Library of Congress acquired 1,300 of his negatives, prints, and contact sheets, plus 20,000 pieces of his correspondence and 200 photographs taken during World War II in 2009. Rogovin reveled in the irony that the same government that persecuted him in the 1950’s now celebrated his work as a champion of the poor and working class. A master collection of 4,000 of his images are housed at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, Arizona, and 900 of his prints were added to the Rogovin Collection at the Burchfield Penney Art Center in Buffalo, in celebration of his 100th birthday. Though Rogovin’s passing is mourned by the artistic community and general population at large, let us also celebrate the life of an artist, innovator, and educator–a man whose work still teaches us to see, and implores us to remember, not forget.