A Great Social Documentary Photographer Few Have Heard Of

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At the risk of being hyperbolic, I believe Milton Rogovin to be one of the most significant social documentary photographers of all time. Unfortunately, not enough people know about him and his work.

I believe he is not a common household name for two reasons:

  1. He’s not from a big city like New York or Paris. He’s from Buffalo, New York and most of his work was done in Buffalo.
  2. In 1957, with McCarthyism sweeping the nation, Rogovin was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee and was subsequently labeled the number one communist in Buffalo by The Buffalo Evening News (now called The Buffalo News) causing him to be outcast and shunned by friends, neighbors, and colleagues.

An optometrist by trade, the fallout caused his optometry practice to fail. This proved to be a blessing in disguise because the failure of his optometry business gave him more time and energy to devote to his photography and to use his photography to bring a voice to the voiceless illustrating the struggle of the working person.

All these years later, I find it ironic that the government that moved to silence him in the fifties, forty years later moved to preserve his work with dignity. In 1999, the United States Library of Congress archived Rogovin’s negatives, contact sheets and thirteen hundred of Rogovin’s prints. They also curate 20,000 pieces of correspondence.

I have a tiny bit of personal connection to Rogovin as well. I was raised by a single parent. My mom, like most single mothers, went into the workforce to provide for me. She worked at Republic Steel and one day, I believe around 1976, came home telling me that a photographer came by and took her picture. She went on to say that the photographer wanted to come to our house to take a picture of her and her family at home. At this time I was developing an interest in photography and was excited to hear this but unfortunately, my mother declined. For years I never knew who that photographer was until I discovered Milton Rogovin’s work and saw that he did a series of photographs of Buffalo area steelworkers in the late 70’s. That’s when I put two and two together.

I own five Milton Rogovin books including the book about the steelworkers, Portraits in Steel. Unfortunately, I’ve yet to find the picture he took of my mother although I’ve heard from a friend that her picture is in the Steel Plant Museum of Western New York which I’ve yet to visit.

There is a documentary about Milton Rogovin called, The Rich Have Their Own Photographers. I cannot find it streaming, for free, online but I did find it on Amazon Prime Video. If you’re an Amazon Prime Subscriber you can watch it for free by CLICKING HERE. If you’re not a prime member, search for it and you might be better able to find it than I was.

The video above is a short mini-documentary about Milton Rogovin, his life, and his work called, The Forgotten Ones which happens to be a title of one of books as well (Shown below).

     

The book on the left, The Forgotten Ones, is likely Milton Rogovin’s most popular book and has amazing images. In the first half of the book, the images are presented without commentary. Rogovin wanted the pictures of the people to speak for themselves without any influence. That was often his style. The second half of the book consists of a set of four images, each taken approximately ten years apart of the same person or family with commentary by the people involved.

The book on the right, Portraits in Steel is more about commentary. In that book, there are fifty or so pages of photographs with the rest of the book consisting of lengthy interviews with the participants.

     

As mentioned, Rogovin went back and rephotographed his subjects every ten years or so. The book on the left, Triptychs: Buffalo’s Lower West Side Revisited, is a study of three pictures of the same person or family, from Buffalo’s impoverished lower west side, each taken ten years apart. You may be frustrated because little or no biographical information about the subjects are given but I must say, the photographs are incredibly compelling. I have it on my coffee table — my family, guests in my home, and I, are often paging through this book.

The book on the right, Milton Rogovin: The Making of a Social Documentary Photographer is a far better book than the cover or blurb may indicate. It’s a very in-depth book about Rogovin’s life and work and includes hundreds of photographs. The publisher’s unimaginative cover and unremarkable blurb did a disservice to the book’s writer and to the work of Rogovin. The book is excellent.

The book above, Milton Rogovin: Lower West Side, Buffalo, New York is the first book I purchased by Rogovin and it’s long been out of print. It’s a short, thin book so if you find one used, don’t pay too much for it — although the content is excellent, if you pay a lot for the book, you’ll be disappointed there isn’t more.


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