From left: Milton as a young boy, c. 1913; Milton's graduation portrait, Columbia University, 1931; "Consumers Eyesight Service", metal plate on wood, sign for Milton's optometric practice.
Biography of Milton Rogovin
Social Documentary Photographer of Los Olvidados (The Forgotten Ones)
"The rich have their own photographers … photograph the forgotten ones."
– Milton Rogovin
Milton Rogovin was born in New York City in 1909. He graduated from Columbia University in 1931 with a degree in optometry and a deep concern for the rights of the worker. He moved to Buffalo, New York, in 1938, where he established his own optometric practice in 1939. In 1942, he married Anne Snetsky. That same year, he purchased his first camera, and was inducted into the U.S. Army, where he served in England as an optometrist until 1945. Upon his discharge, he returned to his optometric practice and his growing family. By 1947, the Rogovin's had two daughters, Ellen and Paula, and a son, Mark.
From left: Anne and Milton c. 1942; Milton's dogtags; January 31, 1944. Milton at Camp Robinson, AK; Milton in the late 1940's.
Rogovin was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1957. The Buffalo Evening News headline about his testimony named him "Buffalo's Top Red" and the persecution that followed significantly impacted his business and his family. Rogovin later stated that though his voice had been silenced, he would not be silenced. He demonstrated this in 1958 when he picked up his camera and began making images that communicated his deep desire for a more just and equal society. Rogovin later earned a Master of Arts in American Studies from the University of Buffalo in 1972, where he taught documentary photography until 1974.
Rogovin's lens has illuminated prominent social issues of the day: the plight of the miner in ten nations; the decline of the steel industry in Buffalo; the common struggle of the poor and working people living in Buffalo's Lower West Side; the celebration of spirit in the storefront churches of Buffalo; the pride of the people of Chile and the voice of its native son Pablo Neruda. Rogovin's sole purpose, as timeless as it is universal, is to help the viewer see the people in his photographs in a new light, as people of dignity and strength.
Rogovin's first photographic series, documenting storefront church services in Buffalo, took three years to complete. In 1962, photographs from this series were published in Aperture magazine, a prestigious photography publication in the United States. Noted African American historian W.E. B. DuBois introduced Rogovin's work to an audience beyond Buffalo with his accompanying essay. Rogovin also traveled to Chile in the 1960's at the invitation of Pablo Neruda to photograph the Chilean people. These photographs later joined Neruda's poetry in a book called Windows That Open Inward: Images of Chile.
Throughout Milton Rogovin's career, his wife Anne was his collaborator, organizer and companion. Over the course of fifty years and across five continents, Anne worked alongside Milton in his photographic ventures while pursuing her own full-time career as a special education teacher, author, activist and mother. Anne's most valuable traits were her unassailable good nature and her diminutive appearance, which opened the doors of many homes that might ordinarily be wary of a man with a camera.
Anne, Jose and Milton. Lower West Side, Buffalo, NY, 1986
Milton and Anne Rogovin began their travels to Appalachia in 1962 to photograph miners and the communities where they lived. They returned nine times through the early 1980's. In addition to the miners of Appalachia, Milton also photographed Scottish and French miners. He received the coveted W. Eugene Smith Award for Documentary Photography in 1983, which enabled Milton and Anne to travel to China, Cuba, Czechoslovakia, Germany, Mexico, Spain, and Zimbabwe to continue the "Family of Miners" series.
In 1972, at the age of 63, Rogovin began to photograph Buffalo's Lower West Side, the city's poorest neighborhood. Milton and Anne returned to the neighborhood for three decades, creating triptychs and quartets by photographing the same individuals or families with each visit. The result is a collection of photographs which provide tremendous insight into the lives of Puerto Rican, African American, Native American, Asian and Italian families over the course of thirty years. In 2000, the Rogovins collaborated with David Isay, the Executive Director of Sound Portraits/Story Corps, on a documentary film, a book and an exhibition. Rogovin completed the Lower West Side series at the age of 92.
Throughout his accomplished photographic career, Rogovin's work has appeared in greater than 160 journals, magazines and other publications. Rogovin has participated in more than 30 group shows and 60 solo exhibitions, and has had eleven books published on his photography. Additionally, a one hour documentary film was made about his life and photography.
Rogovin's photographs are in the permanent collections of over two dozen prominent museums around the world, including the Biblotheque Nationale in Paris, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
In 1999, the Library of Congress acquired 1,300 of Rogovin's prints, negatives and contact sheets. In 2009 the LOC acquired 20,000 pieces of his correspondence along with 200 photographs taken during WWII. The irony was not lost on Rogovin that the very government that persecuted him in the 1950's now celebrated his defiant work as a champion of the poor and working class half a century later. Rogovin was the first photographer in forty years selected for this honor, ensuring that his legacy will be preserved for generations to come.
Milton Rogovin's 100th birthday was celebrated with exhibits, new publications, films, awards and parties. His master collection of 3,500 photographs was placed at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, Arizona and 900 prints were added to the Rogovin Collection at the Burchfield Penney Art Center in Buffalo, New York.