Milton Rogovin, was once an optometrist who became a documentary photographer. Rogovin’s work has been compared to great social documentary photographers of the 19th and 20th Centuries. Rogovin has been compared to Lewis Hine and Jacob Riis.
Rogovin was born in December 1909, Brooklyn, New York. He attended a high school in New York and graduated from Columbia University in 1931 with a degree in optometry. Rogovin then went on to work as an optometrist in New York. While he was working as an optometrist, the great depression was in full swing and America was feeling the strain with an unprecedented rise in unemployment.
Rogovin was distressed by the worsening poverty; he decided to begin attending the New York Workers School. The New York Workers School was a radical institution sponsored by the Communist Party USA. Visiting this school would come back to haunt Rogovin as in 1957, he was called before the House of Un-American Activities Committee (The Second Red Scare 1947-57). The committee destroyed Rogovin’s life “My optometry business immediately dropped in half. We were shunned. Neighbours refused to allow their children to play with our children.”
This incident inspired Rogovin to turn to photography as means of expressing the work and dignity of people who made their living under modest or difficult circumstances. Rogovin wanted to give these people, who would usually receive little attention, some recognition.
In the same year Rogovin collaborated with William Tallmadge, a professor of music, who was recording the music of black churches on New York’s East Side. Tallmadge wanted Rogovin to photograph the congregations of each church. His pictures then came to the attention of photographer Minor Martin White editor of Aperture and co-founder of Aperture.
In 1976 Rogovin began photographing steel and electrical works in Lackawanna and Buffalo states of New York. He the returned in 1987 to photograph the workers at their home and found none of them were working at the factories they were torn down and the equipment was sold to factories in China and Mexico.
From 1981-1990 Rogovin started a long-term project photographing coal Miners. This project took Rogovin to Zimbabwe, France, Scotland, Spain, Cuba and Mexico. Many of these images were published in his first book, The Forgotten Ones.
Rogovin’s work has a very “human-focussed” approach when capturing his photographs. The subject is the most important and continues Rogovin’s wish to give people in poorer conditions, photographing them to make the rest of society aware. Though Rogovin was silenced and branded a traitor for attending communism talks his voice intensified through photography.
“Woman with Greens” This photograph was from the photo series “East Side, 1961-1963”. As the “Storefront” Church series came to an end, Rogovin stayed in the same area as the black churches to photograph the homes and residents in the East Side of Buffalo, New York; a community which, historically, was predominantly African-America. It is one of Rogovin’s most loved and well-known photographs. It is easy to understand why the image is of a woman holding vegetables looking into the camera, because of the empathy that is inherent in the photograph. Rogovin’s image creates a connection with the viewer and the subject matter through documenting the human condition quite beautifully.
This photograph was from the photo-series “Lower West Side, 1972-1977”. In 1972 a patient of his optometry business invited Rogovin to visit her home in the Lower West Side. The area, the buildings and the people captivated Rogovin. The neighbourhood was more ethnically diverse when compared to the East Side.
The subject of the image is young teenage girl holding a textbook in one hand while the other is holding a pen to her mouth. The subject seems to be aware of Rogovin but it feels like he purposely tried to get her to look away from the image. It makes the subject appear to be daydreaming, or focussed on her studies, rather than the photographer. The image’s composition also fits well within the rule of thirds.
This photograph is also from the photo-series “Lower West Side, 1972-1977”. The subject is an adult with a child sitting on the porch of a building. It is unclear whether the adult is the father of the child or a family member, as the child features in another image in the series on their own. The photograph does create a lot of empathy towards the child and the adult. Rogovin’s image also creates a strong theme of family, whether this is immediate family or extended. The poverty gap in New York at the time was very high, the child’s family would most likely have struggled to provide for him but they would try because he is family. This image defines Rogovin’s wish to show the lives of those living with difficult circumstances.
“My optometry business immediately dropped in half. We were shunned. Neighbours refused to allow their children to play with our children.” – http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2011/feb/01/milton-rogovin-obituary