Lower West Side, taken in 1973. Image © Milton Rogovin.
The arc of Milton Rogovin's life is unusual even for emigrants today or their children. Born in New York City in 1909, just four years after his parents emigrated from pogrom-prone Lithuania, he was just a young man when his family's dry goods business collapsed and his father suddenly died, shortly after the Depression kicked in. Rogovin became an optometrist and graduated not long after his father died but, as he's put it, his real education began after he graduated from Columbia. 'I could no longer be indifferent to the problems of people,' he says, 'especially the poor, the forgotten ones.'
Becoming deeply interested in the plight of workers, he attended classes in political economy and read the Daily Worker and New Masses. And he was introduced to the pioneers of working class photography, Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine.
His political beliefs led him to join the Optical Union in New York and, on moving to Buffalo in 1938 to establish his practice, to become a charter member of the United Optical Workers Local Industrial Union 951 of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). He also became active in the American League Against War and Fascism and helped raise money for Republican ambulances during the Spanish Civil War. That year he met Anne Snetsky and, with her support, opened a clinic for union members in downtown Buffalo. The couple married five years later.
Simultaneously, Rogovin became increasingly interested in photography. He bought his first camera in 1942 and, while training to be an x-ray technician in Indiana, studied the art and won his first prize. World War Two brought a temporary hiatus, with Rogovin transplanted to the UK to serve with the US Army at a hospital in Cirencester.
On his return to Buffalo he immersed himself in union politics, and began to assist in voter registration drives among Buffalo's African-American citizens. He and his wife were also involved in protests against the arrest and subsequent execution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, accused of selling atomic secrets to the Soviet Union in the rapidly-intensifying Cold War.
Before long his political activities had drawn him to the attention of the House Un-American Activities Committee and in 1952; after a testimony in which he refused to 'name names', he was labelled 'Buffalo's Top Red' by the Buffalo Evening News. His business suffered greatly but as Rogovin later stated, 'although my voice had been silenced, I would not be silenced'. Thus, in 1958 he took up his camera and began a 40-year career making deeply concerned, humanistic photographs of workers and the disadvantaged in the quest for a more just society.
Picturing the poor
In the 1950s the Rogovins travelled to Mexico, where they met many socially conscious artists. Later he was invited by his friend, William Tallmadge, a professor of music at State University College in Buffalo, to make photographs of the church services in the local Afro-American community. Later, perhaps inspired by Luis Bunuel's legendary Mexican film, Los Olvidados (The Forgotten Ones) (1952), Rogovin took up both Bunuel's title and his bare-bones, single-bulb-style to document Buffalo's Lower West Side, especially its store front churches. This work came to the attention of the noted photographer Minor White who taught at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and co-founded Aperture magazine. The legendary sociologist and civil rights leader WEB DuBois wrote the introduction to an edition of Aperture devoted to Rogovin in 1962.
In the 1960s and 70s Rogovin continued to photograph Buffalo's African American community, but 1967 he and his wife also travelled to Isla Negra, in Chile, to contribute to a project with Pablo Neruda, at the time Latin America's famous poet. In the mid-70s Rovogin began photographing workers in the steel mills, foundries, and automobile factories of western New York. Inspired by Robert Frank, Walker Evans, Paul Strand and, perhaps most importantly, Bill Brandt, these images depicted the workers both at work and at play, both covered in soot and ash and wearing their overalls and at home. This approach, in which portraits of the workers are paired with domestic portraits of the individual became a signature style. At the same time, he began photographing members of the mining communities of Appalachia, just as the US started to turn its attention to its otherwise ignored and forgotten poor.
Rogovin's Buffalo work gained international attention in 1975 with an exhibition and catalogue of his images of the store front churches and African-American, American-Indian and Puerto Rican communities of the city's Lower West Side. Paul Strand wrote in his introduction to the catalogue of the Albright-Knox Art Museum catalogue, Milton Rogovin: Lower West Side Buffalo, New York, that Rogovin's 'deeply humanist' images are 'fine photographs of a mature and serious artist working in the great tradition of Lewis Hine and Jacob Riis, and continued in the Farm Security Administration photographs of Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Ben Shahn, and others'. There could be no finer praise.
Just as he started the project, the classic, heavy industry economy of mining and manufacturing collapsed in the United States and Western Europe. Near-civil wars were fought between the unions and the employers or the government in America and Britain during the late 1970s and 80s,and Rogovin dedicated himself to an epic project he called The Family of Miners, perhaps after Edward Steichen's ground-breaking travelling exhibition, The Family of Man.
Mining the seam
Choosing miners as a topic was no accident. As the historian and socialist Michael Harrington wrote in his 1962 book The Other America: Poverty in the United States, 'The miners have always been an almost legendary section of the workforce. Their towns have the pride of metier, the elan of seamen. Their union battles were long and bloody, sometimes approaching the dimensions of civil war, as in the fabled Harlan County struggles. They had a tough life, but part of the compensation was the knowledge that they were equal to it. Now the job has been taken away, and the pride with it.' Anyone who remembers the epic battles between Arthur Scargill's National Union of Miners and Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s will know exactly what this means.
For many, the miners were the princes of labour and supplied the very wherewithal of society - its coal and iron ore and its precious metals, freed from Mother Earth herself. The miners were the ultimate workers, not just mere proletarians, they were the life-givers.
That they were exploited by the mine owners, bankers and landlords of their company towns was one thing, that they toiled in the darkest reaches of society, and lived and died, forgotten, in darkness, for a pittance, was another.
Their struggle was the struggle of all workers and the photographs of Bill Brandt (1930s), W Eugene Smith (1950s), or Robert Frank (1953) clearly depict the dignity and martyrdom of labour. The generations, the blackened faces, the continuing exploitation and poverty: it seems timeless and utterly ongoing.
And this is what sets Rogovin's work apart from latter-day 'worker photographers' such as Sebastiao Salgado - where Salgado is interested in 'the mass' or 'the workers,' Rogovin recognises that these people aren't just faceless cogs in a machine, they're real individuals with families.
From 1981 on, Rogovin photographed miners all over the world - first returning to Appalachia then heading to Scotland and thence to Spain. His work received a W Eugene Smith Memorial Fund Award for Documentary Photography in 1983 - poetic justice for one who had toiled in the fields of engaged photography for so long. The $18,000 prize allowed Rogovin to become a full time photographer, and he went on to shoot in Mexico, Chile, Cuba, China, Zimbabwe, Germany and Czechoslovakia using his trade union and mining connections.
Milton Rogovin's work is outstanding in its heartfelt understanding, both of the situation of the worker but also of those peoples' dignity as specific human beings. His subjects are always their own selves, regardless of where they may live and under whatever horrifying circumstances they may work.
The country that persecuted Rogovin in the McCarthy Era has reconsidered, and he's now regarded as something of a living treasure. The Library of Congress of the United States honoured Milton Rogovin in 1999 by acquiring his negatives, contact sheets and 1300 photographs. He is among the few living photographers since the 1970s whose work is archived to this extent in America - fellow miner photographer Robert Frank is another.
Rogovin's other materials are held by the J Paul Getty Center in Los Angeles, California, and the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, New Mexico. His work from Buffalo, photographed over more than 40 years, has been shown multiple times internationally and reproduced in numerous catalogues.
In 2007, the International Center for Photography awarded him their highest honor, the Cornell Capa Award. Most recently, the Scottish National Library has acquired all 47 prints from Rogovin's series of Scottish miners from his Family of Miners collection. It is a unique body of work by a unique photographer about to celebrate his 99th birthday.
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