Born: New York, N.Y., U.S.
Milton Rogovin is internationally respected as one of America’s finest social documentary photographers. The directness and underlying compassion in his work is often compared to Lewis Hine’s and Jacob Riis’s early twentieth-century photography.
Rogovin was born in 1909 in New York and graduated from Columbia University in 1931 with a B.S. in optometry. Intrigued by issues of social justice and the inequalities of the Great Depression, he took courses at the Communist Party-run New York Workers School, read the Daily Worker newspaper, and was introduced to the work of Hine and Riis.
He moved to Buffalo, N.Y., in 1938, where he established his own optometric practice on Chippewa Street a year later. In 1942, he married Anne Snetsky, purchased his first camera, and was inducted into the U.S. Army, where he served in England as an optometrist. Upon his discharge in 1945, he returned to his practice and to start a family. He became a member of the Buffalo chapter of the Optical Workers Union and served as librarian for the local branch of the Communist Party.
In 1957 Rogovin was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee. A subsequent Buffalo Evening News headline about his refusal to testify tagged him "Buffalo's Top Red" and the persecution that followed significantly impacted his business and his family. Rogovin later stated that although his voice had been silenced, he would not be silenced. He demonstrated this in 1958 when he picked up his camera in earnest and began making images that communicated his deep desire for a more just and equal society.
Rogovin’s first major photographic project involved documenting the storefront churches in the African American community of Buffalo, an endeavor that gained him publication in the journal Aperture with an introduction by W.E.B. DuBois. Over time his work took him around the world as he focused on what he called “the Forgotten Ones”: working class residents of Buffalo’s Lower West Side, Chileans (a collaboration with poet Pablo Neruda), miners, steelworkers, citizens of Appalachia, Native Americans, and members of Buffalo’s Yemeni population, among others. He shot many of them both on the job and at home, offering his subjects no instruction about how to dress or pose as they stood before his vintage Rolleiflex camera, the sessions invariably in black and white. For their participation, his subjects received a high-quality print of the finished portrait. He returned to the West Side of Buffalo to photograph the same families three or more times over three decades, leading to the exhibition and accompanying book Triptychs.
Throughout Milton Rogovin's career, his wife Anne was his collaborator, organizer and companion. Over the course of fifty years and across five continents, Anne worked alongside Milton in his photographic ventures while pursuing her own full-time career as a special education teacher, author, activist, and mother. Anne's most valuable traits were her unassailable good nature and her diminutive appearance, which opened the doors of many homes that might ordinarily be wary of a man with a camera.
Rogovin earned an M.A. in American Studies from the University of Buffalo in 1972, where he taught documentary photography until 1974. In 1976 he retired from his optometry practice to concentrate full time on photography. In subsequent years he exhibited his work in Finland, Sweden, Greece, Norway, and the Netherlands while continuing to travel the world shooting more photo series. In 1994 he received honorary degrees from both the University at Buffalo and Buffalo State College; in 1996 the Getty Center in Los Angeles acquired 83 of his photographs, and in 1998 the Library of Congress obtained 1,500 examples of his work, making him the first living photographer since the 1970s whose prints and negatives are archived as a national resource. In 2009 the LOC acquired 20,000 pieces of his correspondence along with 200 photographs taken during WWII. The irony was not lost on him that the very government that persecuted him in the 1950s now celebrated his defiant work as a champion of the poor and working class half a century later.
Other major institutions with sizable holdings of Rogovin’s photographs include the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, California, the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona Libraries and the Milwaukee Art Museum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (See below for information about the Burchfield Penney Art Center’s acquisition of 900 photos and archival materials.)
Rogovin died in 2011 at the age of 101. Throughout his accomplished photographic career, his work appeared in greater than 160 journals, magazines and other publications. He participated in more than 30 group shows and 60 solo exhibitions, and had eleven books published on his photography. Additionally, a documentary film was made about his life and photography.
Selected online resources for Milton Rogovin:
*his website: http://miltonrogovin.com/
*his obituary in the Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2011/feb/01/milton-rogovin-obituary
*his obituary in the New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/19/arts/design/19rogovin.html
*a gallery of images from the Getty: http://www.getty.edu/art/gettyguide/artMakerDetails?maker=3637&page=1
*a biography and detailed, searchable list of holdings from the Library of Congress: http://www.loc.gov/rr/print/coll/238_rogo.html
The Milton Rogovin Archives at the Burchfield Penney
The Burchfield Penney Art Center is home to a large Milton Rogovin archive. Material has been donated by local collectors and friends of the artist as well as by the Rogovin Collection, LLC, and by Milton and his wife Anne themselves. The archival collection contains hundreds of items such as signed ephemera, newspaper clippings, local, national and international reviews, features, and exhibition flyers. The collection also holds awards and diplomas given to both him and Anne, notes and copies of Anne’s work, slides, films, interviews, and correspondence.
Objects of note include the artist’s photography equipment such as a Rolleiflex camera, his preferred camera over the eight decades of his photography career. Some of the dark room equipment in the collection includes spot toners, along with the artist’s kit for using them, the scale he used to measure chemicals, and developing trays. These items exemplify the striking similarities between the tools he used for photography and those used for his optometry practice and bring to mind other parallels the two professions maintain.
There are also personal items, such as the artist’s flat cap, which he was often photographed wearing and a self portrait from 1943 in military uniform. Rogovin saved comment books from his exhibits over the course of his career and these are available in the archives. They offer interesting insight into the changing times and views of visitors as his career progressed.
The archive contains an audio reel of Bertolt Brecht’s interview with the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947. Rogovin was heavily influenced by Brecht’s beliefs and was known to recite key lines from his poem A Worker Reads History (1936) at lectures, interviews, and other occasions.
In his lifetime, Rogovin submitted several proposals to municipalities for the use of his images in public spaces. The archive holds proposals for both New York City and Buffalo: the New York City Queens Supreme Court Project of 1996, a photo mural for the Buffalo Humboldt-Hospital Station in 2010 and an undated portfolio for photo monuments on Niagara Street in the Lower West Side. Though these proposals were ultimately rejected, they highlight the artist’s ongoing drive to contribute to and enhance the public sphere.