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 Milton Rogovin  (1909 - 2011)

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Lived/Active: New York      Known for: photography

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Obituary. Associated Press (January 17, 2011)

Milton Rogovin, a social documentary photographer who built a life's work by looking through a lens at people who were invisible to others, died Tuesday at age 101.

Rogovin was in hospice care after a brief illness and died at his home in Buffalo surrounded by family, said his son, Mark.

After being blacklisted in the communist scare of the 1950s, Rogovin dedicated his life to photography.  His pictures documented the lives of the poor, the dispossessed, the working class — in particular those living in a six-square-block neighborhood in Buffalo near his optometry practice.

"He referred to these people as the 'forgotten ones,'" his son said. "These were poor and working people who were not ever in the limelight."

Rogovin found "forgotten ones" on New York Indian reservations and in far-flung corners of China, Zimbabwe, France, Scotland and Spain.

His first project was a documentary series on Buffalo's black churches.  Living on his wife's schoolteacher salary, he traveled to Appalachia, Chile and Mexico to take portraits of working people — always using a vintage Rolleiflex, a bare bulb flash, occasionally a tripod, and black and white film.

Born in New York City in 1909, Rogovin moved to Buffalo in 1938 to practice as an optometrist.  He married Anne Setters in 1942, the same year he bought his first camera and was drafted into the U.S. Army.  After returning from the war, he organized an optometrists' union in Buffalo and served as a librarian in the city's Communist Party. In 1957, he was called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

"Rogovin, named as top red in Buffalo, balks at nearly all queries," read the headline the next day in the hometown Buffalo Evening News.

With his optometry business sliced in half because of negative publicity, Rogovin turned to photography — although he never studied it formally.

"The rich have their photographers," Rogovin often said. "I photograph the forgotten ones."

In 1972, Rogovin turned his lens closer to home — the Lower West Side of Buffalo, one of the most impoverished neighborhoods in the state, a place where Italian-Americans had been replaced after World War II by Puerto Ricans, blacks, American Indians and poor whites.

Although he was first suspected of being a police officer or FBI agent, Rogovin eventually gained their trust, shooting 1,000 portraits over three years and always making sure to get a copy back to the subject.

In 1984, he returned to the neighborhood, tracked down his original subjects and rephotographed as many as he could.  He did the same in 1992 when he was 83 and recovering from heart surgery and prostate cancer. He remained working until 2002.

"Never ever once did he start a project thinking, 'Ahh, this is historic,'" said his son, a mural painter.  "It was all because he saw a face of a Native American woman with all her lines and age and white hair as a beautiful face, a face he wanted everybody to witness.

"I think the thing that he would say is, 'I want people to use my photographs.'  He wants his work to be used in a million educational ways.  His desire was that these works would be learned from and enjoyed in the communities that he photographed in.  It's beginning to happen."

Rogovin's wife, who taught mentally disabled children, died in 2003 at 84.  Along with her husband, she protested the trial and sentencing of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.

"She was his PR agent," Mark Rogovin said. "My father was really an activist since the Depression.  My mother got involved in activities around the conclusion of the Spanish Civil War when, as my father says, he started to politicize my mother."

Rogovin also is survived by two daughters, Ellen Rogovin Hart and Paula Rogovin; five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

A master collection of 4,000 of his images are stored at the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona in Tucson.  In addition, all his negatives and contact sheets, plus 1,300 prints and 20,000 pieces of correspondence, are kept at the Library of Congress.

Carolyn Thompson with contributions by Ben Dobbin

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