Milton Rogovin dies: Documentary photographer was 101

Milton Rogovin captured two men dancing in front of a jukebox in Buffalo, N.Y., for his Lower West Side Quartets series.
Milton Rogovin captured two men dancing in front of a jukebox in Buffalo, N.Y., for his Lower West Side Quartets series.
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 20, 2011; 7:46 PM

Milton Rogovin, an optometrist whose spare and compelling portraits of the working poor made him one of the nation's most acclaimed documentary photographers, died Jan. 18 at his home in Buffalo, N.Y., of complications from a heart attack. He was 101.

Mr. Rogovin walked the streets of Buffalo and traveled to Appalachia and South America to capture everyday moments in the lives of the rural and urban underclass: a shirtless, sweating coal miner gazing at the camera, coke oven shovel in hand and goggles pulled back from his eyes. A schoolgirl leaning against a telephone pole, pen tip in mouth, an embodiment of expectation.

"All my life, I've focused on the poor," Mr. Rogovin said. "The rich ones have their own photographers."

His images conjured the work of Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, who captured the struggle to survive in the aftermath of the Dust Bowl and the 1929 stock market collapse.

Mr. Rogovin's subject, however, was not the Great Depression but a "chronic depression," New York Times editorial board writer Verlyn Klinkenborg noted in 1999, "that still shapes the lives of the working poor and unemployed."

The pictures were straightforward, showing the dignity of difficult lives without romanticizing pain or toil.

"He lets his subjects present themselves as they want to be seen," art critic Holland Cotter of the Times wrote. "In spirit, the results are candid, unfancy, a step away from snapshots. They are also expertly crafted, and beautiful."

Mr. Rogovin began taking pictures in the late 1950s after his optometry business suffered from his association with Buffalo's Communist Party. He was called the town's "top Red" by a local newspaper and was summoned to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Customers dwindled; his children had few playmates.

"My voice had been silenced," he told The Washington Post in 2003, "so I decided to speak through my camera."

His first project was documenting storefront churches in Buffalo, whose congregants were poor and mostly African American. The pictures were published in Aperture magazine in 1962 with an introduction by W.E.B. Du Bois, who praised them as "astonishingly human and appealing."

Mr. Rogovin and his wife, Anne Snetsky Rogovin - a special education teacher who served in many ways as his colleague - traveled to Appalachia and China to photograph miners. They also went to Chile after Mr. Rogovin sent a letter to the poet Pablo Neruda, who responded with an invitation to visit.

The photographer and the poet later collaborated on a book, "Windows That Open Inward: Images of Chile."

Mr. Rogovin was perhaps best known for pictures taken closer to home, among the crumbling Victorians of Buffalo's heroin-ravaged Lower West Side. At his wife's urging, he returned for decades to photograph the people there, his series of aging and changing families serving as a map of time's passage.

"These aren't cool sociological renderings," wrote Julie Salamon, a Times culture reporter, "but intensely personal evocations of a world whose faces are often missing in a culture that celebrates the beautiful and the powerful."

Mr. Rogovin never told his subjects how to pose. He shot with an old twin-lens Rolleiflex, rarely making more than three or four pictures at one sitting, and printed his images in a basement darkroom.

His archive is held at the Library of Congress, and his photos have appeared in illustrious venues such as the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

He was more pleased that his pictures hung in Buffalo at a community health clinic and in underground subway stations.

"This - THIS! - is where I want my photos shown," he said in 2003, standing on a train platform as a subway car came and went. "This is where the forgotten should be remembered."

Milton Rogovin was born Dec. 30, 1909, in Brooklyn to Jewish immigrants from Lithuania.

His left-leaning politics and sympathy for the underdog were born during the Depression. His parents' dry-goods store failed; a month later, his father died after a heart attack.

He graduated from Columbia University with an optometry degree in 1931 and practiced for several years in Manhattan before moving to Buffalo with his wife.

Anne Rogovin died in 2003. Survivors include three children, Mark Rogovin of Forest Park, Ill., Ellen Rogovin Hart of Melrose Park, Pa., and Paula Rogovin of Teaneck, N.J.; five grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

Mr. Rogovin was self-trained and considered himself an activist, not an artist. "I never do composition - I just shoot," he said. "They tell me about lines. I don't know from anything about lines."

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