‘The Working-Class Eye of Milton Rogovin’
When: Through June 30
Where: Roosevelt University’s Gage Gallery, 18 S. Michigan
Information: (312) 341-6458; roosevelt.edu/gagegallery
Milton Rogovin was not a street photographer, stealthily snapping shots of unassuming subjects. His venue was social documentary photography, shooting in neighborhoods, storefront churches, coal mines and steel mills.
Rogovin documented the people and places of his hometown, Buffalo, N.Y., as well as traveling to Appalachia, Chile and Mexico. His striking gelatin silver prints hold portraits of the working class, the poor and the displaced that are etched with grace and dignity.
A wide selection of the photographer’s work is now on display in “The Working-Class Eye of Milton Rogovin,” an exhibit at Roosevelt University’s Gage Gallery curated by Professor of Communications Michael Ensdorf, in consultation with Roosevelt labor historians Erik Gellman and Jack Metzgar.
“I think what Milton does best is capture the full complexity and dignity of working-class people,” Gellman said. “There is a sense in these photographs of a proud working-class identity, which I think is very important, especially today.”
Rogovin, who died Jan. 18 at age 101, did not live to see the new exhibit. But one guesses he would have liked it. He often said he wanted his photographs out where people could see them, not stored away in a museum.
About six months ago, Ensdorf, Gellman and Metzgar approached Mark Rogovin, the photographer’s son who lives in Forest Park, with their idea about a show focusing on the working class.
“They didn’t want me to select the photographs, which surprised me, because I’m usually asked to simply choose some for exhibit,” Mark Rogovin said. “Instead, they wanted to take their time and choose the images and exhibit them uniquely.”
The trio poured through 1,000 photographs taken over the last half-century. They found familiar iconic images but also many that had never before been published. Rogovin is best known for his series on Buffalo’s storefront churches and Lower West Side neighborhood, as well as portraits of industrial workers and the people of Appalachia.
“The goal was to find images that people may not have seen before,” Ensdorf said. “The whole point of doing this show was to curate something that was somewhat unique and different that required a back-and-forth discussion between the three of us.”
Fighting back with a camera
Rogovin was born in 1909 to Jewish immigrants and grew up in Brooklyn. His left-leaning political views were activated during the Depression, when he became distressed at the plight of the poor and unemployed. He graduated from Columbia University in 1931 and moved to Buffalo in 1938 to practice optometry.
In 1942, he married Anne Setters, bought his first camera and was drafted into the U. S. Army. Upon his return to civilian life, he organized a chapter of the optometrists’ union and served as librarian for the Communist Party of Buffalo.
Then the inevitable happened. In October 1957, Rogovin was caught in the net cast by the House Un-American Activities Committee. It was the waning days of the Communist witch hunt, and the experience would change Rogovin’s life.
Like many before him, Rogovin refused to answer the committee’s questions, and all of what you would expect happened. Rogovin saw his optometry business cut in half and his children shunned by their friends. He and his wife were questioned by the FBI and neighbors reported on them.
To this point, photography had been a side project in Rogovin’s life, but now he saw it as a means of capturing the worth and dignity of the working poor, people he referred to as “the forgotten ones,” his son said.
“After the hearings, my father felt he lost the ability to do the organizing and peace and justice work that he had been doing,” Mark Rogovin said. “It was after working on the storefront church series that he decided he no longer wanted to be a casual photographer.”
Rogovin used a vintage twin-lens Rolleiflex camera to capture straightforward, candid images of his subjects, which bring to mind the work of Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange during the Great Depression. His storefront church series was published in Aperture magazine in 1962 with an introduction by W.E.B. Du Bois, who praised it as “astonishingly human and appealing.”
Another series, known as the quartets, is a tribute to dogged determination. Encouraged by his wife, a special education teacher, Rogovin would return over four decades to photograph the same people in the Lower West Side, creating a stunning series that captures the changes within families as time passes.
Rogovin also made his work a family affair that included his three children. He would tack new photos to a bulletin board in the dining room and over dinner the family would critique the work.
“Basically, if it made it through that rough-and-tumble critique, it might be a keeper,” his son said, laughing.
‘Important work’ preserved
Coming to a consensus about how to organize the exhibit was a slow process, admits Ensdorf. Rogovin is known for his series work, and his photographs are usually presented as such, but the organizers didn’t want to assume it would be the most meaningful way to organize the show.
They did know they wanted to focus on Rogovin’s devotion to the working class. Gellman and Metzgar brought focus to the labor aspects of Rogovin’s images, while Ensdorf, who teaches photography, brought an aesthetic eye to the project.
“Mike picked up on the still lifes, landscapes and storefronts, which I didn’t notice at first,” Gellman said. “Milton is not known for these, but they fit great into the context of the show.”
The exhibit begins with random images — an old man with his glass of beer, a row of mailboxes, a woman in a storefront — and then segues into small collections from the series work. There are dynamic storefront preachers, pensive children in Appalachia, dignified coal miners at work and at home.
“He’s a great photographer compositionally, and technically these are wonderful prints,” Ensdorf said. “But it’s his connection with the individual that is so strong and resonates over the decades.”
Mark Rogovin remembers asking his father why he kept taking photographs. Both parents would respond, saying it was “important work.”
“All these years later, I better understand what they were talking about,” he said. “This is a history of our nation that needs to be told and preserved.”
For more information on the work of Milton Rogovin: miltonrogovin.com .