The great photographer immersed himself in the poetry of simplicity and came to the surface with the net full of clear fish and flowers of profundity —Pablo Neruda, “The Islands and Rogovin,” Windows That Open Inward.
People all over are beautiful if given half a chance. I feel that people should have an opportunity to work and live decently …. — Cheryl Brutvan, “An Interview with Milton Rogovin,” The Forgotten Ones.
Milton Rogovin was born the 30th of December 1909 in New York. His parents owned a small store and sold draperies and yardgoods. Like many, they lost everything in the Depression. Rogovin saw devastating poverty, and as a result became politically active. Another decade would pass however before he’d discover photography. In the meantime, he attended Columbia University, where he studied Optometry, as his brother had done before him. In 1938 he moved to Buffalo and opened an optometry clinic on Chippewa street. He had come to Buffalo to be near the trade union people, but he would eventually discover much more.
I visit Rogovin at his house. It is simple and dignified, like the man himself. Daumier prints cover the dining room walls; more prints are spread across the table, waiting to be framed. A Navaho rug lies across the livingroom floor. The shelves are well-stocked with books: Picasso, Goya, Van Gogh. At one point, he reads to me from the memoirs of Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945), the artist for whom he has the greatest respect. “If you want to know what I think about something,” he remarks as he draws aside the cover, “just look in the back of my books.” I can see he’s made copious notes. Finding the passage which he has enclosed in a bold ink rectangle, he reads words that could well describe his own feelings about his photography:
I should like to say something about my reputation for being a “socialist” artist, which clung to me from then on. Unquestionably my work at this time, as a result of the attitudes of my father and brother and of the whole literature of the period, was in the direction of socialism. But my real motive for choosing my subjects almost exclusively from the life of the workers was that only such subjects gave me in a simple and unqualified way what I felt to be beautiful. For me the Königsberg longshoremen had beauty; the Polish jimkes on their grain ships had beauty; the broad freedom of movement in the gestures of the common people had beauty. Middle-class people held no appeal for me at all. Bourgeois life as a whole seemed to me pedantic. The proletariat, on the other hand, had a grandness of manner, a breadth to their lives. Much later on, when I became acquainted with the difficulties and tragedies underlying proletarian life, when I met the women who came to my husband for help and so, incidentally, came to me, I was gripped by the full force of the proletarian’s fate. Unsolved problems such as prostitution and unemployment grieved and tormented me, and contributed to my feeling that I must keep on with my studies of the lower classes. And portraying them again and again opened a safety-valve for me; it made life bearable.
Rogovin once told Cheryl Brutvan in an interview, “I never could warm up to the middle class in photography.” Among the working classes, among the poor, among those who live on the street, he finds not only suffering but also dignity and beauty. And as the title of his book, The Forgotten Ones, suggests, he finds potential that is never acknowledged, never given an opportunity to flourish. His task is to document this forgotten potential, dignity and beauty. Accordingly, he considers himself a “social documentary photographer” and not an “artist,” though he’d rather dispense with labels altogether and concentrate on his mission—to tell the truth about the human condition. This concern with documenting human lives guides everything he does. He is not institutionally trained; he does things an academically-minded photographer would consider incorrect. His techniques have been developed ad hoc, to accommodate the challenges of photographing in a mine, in a factory, in a living room, in a foreign country. Even his choice of equipment often has a mundane rationale. Years ago he changed his camera after a number of people had asked what it was worth. How could he function, worrying his camera might be stolen?
Rogovin purchased his first camera in 1942, the year he was drafted, the year he married his wife, Anne. But even then he wasn’t a serious photographer. He took snapshots of family vacations and the like. Then in 1958 he was asked by a friend, a professor of music at Buffalo’s state college, to collaborate on a project. The professor would record music at store front churches; Rogovin would take pictures. After three months the music recordings were finished, and the professor moved on. But Rogovin had found his place, and so he continued to photograph at the churches a further three years. He had embarked on a path that would cross the Earth.
In the late 1950s he was still practicing optometry and could photograph only weekends. Besides the responsibilities of his work, he had three children to consider. In addition, Rogovin was politically active in the Black community, as he had been since the 1940s. His efforts caught the attention of the House Committee on Un-American activities, which targeted Rogovin in 1957. His name appeared in the papers. He was shunned by neighbours; his children were no longer visited by their friends; his income dropped immediately by one-half. The wounds have never healed, though in recent years he has been awarded an honorary doctorate by the local university. The recognition, he adds, is encouraging. “It helps,” he says.
As early as the 1960s Rogovin began to receive critical recognition. A number of the store front church photographs (accompanied with an introduction by W. E. B. Du Bois, an educator, writer and founder of the NAACP) was published in a 1962 issue of Aperture by an impressed editor, Minor White. In this same year, Rogovin travelled to Appalachia to photograph coal miners. He had been reading about the problems that they faced, and he wanted to document the hardships, to show outsiders what was happening. This would be the beginning of a world-wide trek. Milton and his wife Anne eventually lived among miners in France (1981), Scotland (1982) and Spain (1983); they would also travel many times to Mexico, and once to China (1986). A selection of the photographs which Rogovin took in these places was published in book form with the title The Forgotten Ones.
Rogovin says he is normally a shy person. But that changes when it comes to his photography. He is not afraid of being aggressive. Perhaps his most remarkable act was to write to the world-famous Chilean poet Pablo Neruda in 1967, asking if he were interested in collaborating on a book. I asked Rogovin what motivated him to do this. The poems, of course: he mentions “The United Fruit Company,” and then asks rhetorically, “Neruda had worked with other photographers and artists—why couldn’t he work with me?” Rogovin laughs when he tells this story; even he seems a bit surprised by his boldness—but there is no doubt that the letter paid off. Neruda replied on 13 November 1966 with a letter that begins, “your work is wonderful and I will be greatly honoured if we collaborate in any venture.” Collaborate they did, and the result was Windows That Open Inward: Images of Chile.
After leaving Chile Rogovin returned to Buffalo. He began in 1969 to photograph the people of the Lower West Side. At first some were suspicious (was he with the police? —the F.B.I.?). He photographed prostitutes, pimps, drug dealers. He met intelligent people whose lives had gone terribly wrong. He tells me a few stories about people he has met. He tells me of a man who lived in the shadow of an abandoned apartment building. “Why,” the man had once said, “can’t the city give us this building? I could teach people here how to do lathe work and other sorts of work. We could fix up this building and live in it. All we want is a job.” A job, Rogovin repeats, a job. The problem, overlooked in this time of welfare-bashing, is the lack of good jobs, and Rogovin’s experiences have convinced him that matters are only getting worse. Today, he reminds me, AT&T have announced they will fire thousands of workers as part of their “restructuring.” The topic turns to work.
In The Forgotten Ones there is a section entitled “Working People.” This group of photographs was begun in 1977, shortly after Rogovin read Bertolt Brecht’s poem, “A Worker Reads History.” He decided he wanted to show the people who do the gruelling physical work on which our society depends, work we don’t see depicted in the photographs of mainstream magazines—or anywhere in our media. Meanwhile, he had been gradually phasing out his optometry practice, from which he retired in 1976, after discussing with his family his desire to photograph full-time. Rogovin could no longer bear the distraction which optometry had become. Photography, he knew, was his calling. Having exhibited his work in Buffalo’s Albright-Knox gallery, he’d by this time established his credibility. He was able to get permission to go into Republic Steel. Once inside he pressed further, asking the workers he’d photographed if they would allow him to take pictures in their homes. He wanted to document the contrasting aspects of working people, to allow them to dress the way that they wanted to dress and to sit where they wanted to sit. He had learned quickly, in the Lower West Side, not to ask questions and not to make demands. He let people choose how they wanted to be photographed. And he was careful to keep a distance.
He returned to the Lower West Side in the early 1980s and again in the early 1990s. He didn’t know the names of the people whose pictures he’d taken between 1969 and 1972, much less where they had gone; but he had the pictures. He showed them to the locals, and was told who had OD’d, who was in jail. Others, he was told, had moved or disappeared. Those he could find he again photographed, and in 1994 the resulting book Triptych was published by Norton.
Milton Rogovin wonders aloud, Is anyone listening? Is anyone listening to the silence of his photographs? If you study them for a while, they begin to speak; but you must pay attention. He finds the sometimes fruitless work of selling himself to booksellers, publishers and museums disheartening. Outside of Buffalo, his work is largely ignored. He recognises that his photography is good, and yet he must acknowledge that “good” does not guarantee an audience. And besides, the well-to-do don’t want to be reminded of those who are less fortunate. Poverty isn’t fun, and so it can’t compete with, say, the glossy colour images of People and Glamour (“I hate colour photography,” he says), or the saccharine banality of Trisha Romance. He’s never heard of Romance (a painter who has captivated the bourgeoisie), so we throw around a few more names and indulge our consternation. In the end though Rogovin is confident he has taken the right path, and he knows that there are a few people out there who are paying attention.
I have one last request of Milton Rogovin before I leave. He has told me of a book, a very special book, given to him by Neruda many years ago. “May I see it?” He goes to the shelves and carefully pulls out a large volume, 20 inches in height, perhaps more. Neruda has inscribed the book for Rogovin. I’m struck by the exuberance of the large green script, among which are whimsically-drawn green birds (“Neruda always wrote with a green pen,” he tells me). The book, Arte de Pajaros [Art of Birds], is a collection of poems. Beside each poem is a gorgeous illustration of birds, painted by friends of Neruda. It is a work of beauty and simplicity, and I look upon it with delight. Then I look out of the window, and see it is getting dark—it is time to go. [-June 1996]