Milton Rogovin: Social Documentary Photographer

Milton Rogovin

Milton Rogovin, 1978. Photo © Dennis C. Enser, Buffalo News

Milton Rogovin (1909-2011) was a social documentary photographer who lived to be 101 years old. An optometrist who became a full-time photographer later in life, Rogovin was labeled a Communist and was persecuted by the FBI for his activism promoting workers’ rights in Buffalo, New York. After his voice was silenced, he picked up a camera and told the stories of working class, marginalized communities through his black-and-white lens.

His son, Mark Rogovin, says his father took photographs of what he called “the forgotten ones”, including factory workers, coal miners and steel mill workers. He also traveled across the globe to illuminate social issues.

Milton liked to take photos of workers in their work environment, contrasted by the same workers in their home setting with their family members.

Milton Rogovin’s series of photographs of residents from the Lower West Side of Buffalo, NY tell the common struggle of the poor and working people living in the community. Rogovin’s sole purpose is to help the viewer see the people in his photographs in a new light, as people of dignity and strength.

Mark Rogovin says it took time for Milton’s subjects to earn the trust of the workers and residents from the Lower West Side. Mark says his mother, Anne Snetsky, who was Milton’s wife, collaborator and companion, was “instrumental” in making this happen.

“My mother was the first to get her foot into somebody’s door before my father walked in with his camera,” said Mark.

The following series of photographs called “Lower West Side Triptychs: 1972-1994” was described by Milton Rogovin himself in the following quote:

“In 1984, after an absence of twelve years, I returned to the Lower West Side of Buffalo, NY to re-photograph the individuals and families who continued to live in that area. Then, eight years later, after overcoming heart surgery and cancer treatment, I again returned to the Lower West Side to complete a series of Triptychs which are unique in the history of social documentary history. The photographs in this series document the lives of the people over a 20 year span.” – Milton Rogovin

Included in this series are photos taken both indoors or outside the homes. There are photographs of changes of homes and storefronts over time as well. Milton and Anne were able to reconnect with 60 families.

Milton Rogovin: Lower West Side Triptychs

Click image to view photo gallery

In 1998, David Isay, a MacArthur Fellow from Sound Portraits, saw the Triptychs book that had been sent to him by Milton Rogovin. Isay asked Milton and Anne if his organization could collaborate on a project. Working together, they contacted 20 of the families who appeared in the Triptych book and conducted film and tape recorded interviews. The recordings were very compelling, and Isay encouraged Milton to re-photograph the families for a fourth and final time. An award-winning documentary film was made about the project and a book was published with the interviews and photographs. In 2003 there was an exhibition at the New York Historical Society in New York City, focusing on the Quartet series.

This collaboration completed the Lower West Side Quartet series, with portraits of individuals and families spanning over three decades, from 1972-2002.

Milton Rogovin: Lower West Side Quartets

Click image to view photo gallery

For information on The Working Class Eye of Milton Rogovin exhibition at Chicago’s Gage Gallery, click here.

For information on Milton Rogovin and to see more of his photographs, click here.

“The Rich have their own photographers. I photograph the forgotten ones.” – Milton Rogovin

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