THE WORKING-CLASS EYE OF MILTON ROGOVIN: A Retrospective Photo Essay
Milton Rogovin photographed the people of the neighborhoods and workplaces most of us never enter. He didn’t use the language of war to describe his photographic practices—no casual “shooting,” no “capturing” his subjects, no “arsenal” of cameras and films. Instead, in thousands of photographs over fifty years, he built a human landscape by seeing those who are the least visible and least powerful.
Rogovin—who died in January 2011 at the age of 101 in his Buffalo, New York home—was born on December 30, 1909 in Manhattan to Russian-Jewish immigrants. He graduated from Stuyvesant High School, and was persuaded by his family to follow the career path of an older brother and become an optometrist. As a Columbia University graduate, he did not fit the stereotype of the working-class laborer. Yet, as the son of a bankrupt small store owner who died suddenly, as a young man experiencing the no-safety-net suffering of the Great Depression, and through his lifelong self-education in literature, political philosophy, economics, music, and the visual arts, Rogovin taught himself how to see the worlds of workers. “The radical movement shaped me into a new person,” Rogovin once recalled.
The artistic expression of that “new person”—and his evolution from a politically-left optometrist to a masterful photographer—was fueled by the energy, chutzpah, and humanity of his wife Anne, a teacher, whom he married in 1942, after moving to Buffalo in 1938. Rogovin served three years in the army during World War II, joined the Optical Workers Union, practiced optometry in a working-class Buffalo neighborhood, and—with Anne—continued such political work as voter registration drives and hosting political reading groups associated with the Communist Party. The Rogovins were not “salon socialists” (as Agnes Smedley once described theorists without actions). In the increasingly oppressive political climate of the 1950s, however, their lives changed. In 1957, Milton was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and refused to answer any questions other than his name and occupation. In this climate of fear, his optometric practice diminished, and his whole family was affected—economically and socially—as the three Rogovin children faced the isolation imposed on them when their father was labeled “Buffalo’s Top Red” in the Buffalo Evening News.
That oppressive time became a turning point for Rogovin as a photographer. He and Anne traveled to Mexico several times during the 1950s, where they became acquainted with the Taller de Grafica Popular printmakers, and where Rogovin composed stunning early portraits of Mexican workers (especially women). In 1957—at the invitation of his friend William H. Tallmadge, a music professor at Buffalo State College who was recording the music in the “Holiness” churches within Buffalo’s African-American community—Rogovin began taking photographs inside the storefront churches of Buffalo’s poorest neighborhoods. Emerging from the near silencing of his political voice by HUAC, Rogovin—the Jewish outsider with a camera—photographed the humble spaces African-Americans created for exuberant worship. Those storefront churches were anchors, Rogovin realized, whereby a “scrubwoman” or “dishwasher” could become “a preacher who sways the members of his [or her] little church.”
Melding technical prowess, imaginative aesthetics, and political consciousness, Rogovin produced a body of work situated within and nurtured by human relationships among the poor and working class, in Buffalo and around the world. His lineage as a humanistic photographer can be traced back to Lewis Hine (particularly his portraits), to the artistic expressions of Käthe Kollwitz (who had the capacity to “see into” the lives of common people), and to the worker-poetry of Bertolt Brecht and Pablo Neruda. Although still not given sufficient recognition in courses on the history and aesthetics of photography, Rogovin’s work can be compared to that of Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographers of the 1930s—such as Dorothea Lange and Ben Shahn—to the American modernist Walker Evans, to the German portraitist August Sander, and to the Mexican photography of Paul Strand and Tina Modotti. Noting these influences, future historians of photography will still be challenged to find categories adequate enough to encompass the distinctive contribution of Milton Rogovin.
Looking down into the lens of his Rolleiflex camera, asking permission of his subjects, allowing them to pose themselves in their own surroundings, and providing them with prints, Rogovin achieved a mutuality of human relationships that produced his extraordinary body of work. He did not dominate his subjects or control their narratives. His work/ home studies, triptychs, and quartets trace presence and absence—lives, not “lifestyles.” He created interpretative spaces so that the viewer can infer possibility rather than presume defeat. His portraits are not evidence or types; they do not confer dignity, they reveal it. Gainfully employed or not, Rogovin’s people are always more than their jobs.
In addition to the Buffalo “Storefront Churches” series (1958-1961), Rogovin’s body of work includes: photographs of Mexico (1950s-early 1960s); residents of Buffalo’s East and West Sides (the latter over a period of decades, resulting in a series of triptychs and quartets); Native Americans of Western New York and parts of Canada (1963-2002); workers and families of Chile (1967); Appalachian Americans (1962-1987); Yemeni immigrants (1977-1979); working people on the job and at home (1976- 1987)—especially steel workers when they were employed in the mills and after the mills went down; and miners and their families from ten countries (1981-1990). The critical subject of these photographs is not the photographer—his techniques, style, and fame—but rather those who, in Rogovin’s words, are “the forgotten ones who make the world go ‘round.”
Milton Rogovin is a pivotal figure in the history of photography because his work offers an alternative visual vocabulary—of “finding,” not “capturing”—and an aesthetic that challenges the viewer to see with a working-class eye. It is a model of photography as inquiry, not domination: a vision for photographers and video artists of the twenty-first century. The photographs herein appear through the collaboration and courtesy of Mark Rogovin (Milton’s son). For more information and photographs, please visit www.miltonrogovin.com, the University of Arizona’s Center for Creative Photography website—http://ccp.uair.arizona.edu/item/38129—or (until June 30, 2011) “The Working-Class Eye of Milton Rogovin” exhibit at Roosevelt University’s Gage Gallery in Chicago.