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Photographer's Work Documents Forgotten Lives

Culture: Armed with a vintage camera, former optometrist Milton Rogovin captured the faces of the poor and workers, people that he says 'should be paid attention to.'

November 18, 2000|From Associated Press

BUFFALO, N.Y. — For decades, photographer Milton Rogovin and his wife Anne sought out the people they call the "forgotten ones," the hard working, hard-luck or just plain hardened of society, capturing their faces--their lives really--with a vintage Rolleiflex camera and black-and-white film.

"I'm not trying to entertain people. I want to let them know that there are people in this world who are poor and should be paid attention to," says Rogovin, at 90 as committed as ever to his cause.

Rogovin's "forgotten ones" fill books. "Triptychs," a collection from those days on Buffalo's lower west side, shows subjects first photographed in the 1970s and revisited in their careworn neighborhood in the 1980s and 1990s. The gritty "Portraits in Steel" shows Buffalo steelworkers on the job and at home shortly before the industry's collapse.

Rogovin, the 1983 recipient of the W. Eugene Smith Award for humanistic photography, has found other "forgotten ones" in Buffalo's black churches, the coal mines of Appalachia, on New York Indian reservations and in far-flung corners of Chile, France, Scotland and Spain.

Last year, he ensured that the forgotten ones would be forever remembered when he donated his entire archive of 1,200 boxed pictures, negatives and contact sheets to the Library of Congress, the nation's premier photographic archive.

"His dignified portraits of workers speak of the dreams and aspirations common to humanity," the Library said in a statement.

Rogovin's work as a social documentary photographer will be honored again when he receives the New York State Governor's Arts Award from Gov. George Pataki Monday at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Rogovin did not set out to do this work. An optometrist, the father of three practiced for 20 years while keeping politically active in the minority community, encouraging voter registration.

Graduating from Columbia University in 1931 in the midst of depression opened his eyes to the hardships of his forgotten ones. "Whatever I did after that, I always had those people in mind," he says.

His activism would land him before the House Committee on Un-American Affairs in 1957.

"My practice was almost destroyed," Rogovin recalls. "Children on our block were not permitted to speak to our children. Patients thought they would be tarred with the same brush so they stayed away."

"It was such a difficult time," adds Anne Rogovin, who taught disabled children before retiring and becoming a fixture at her husband's side in the field. Especially since "every cell in his body is dedicated to the common man," she said.

It was then Rogovin found that, through photography, he could still be heard. Rogovin was 48 and had no formal training when a friend asked him to take pictures while he recorded music at a black storefront church in Buffalo. Though his friend finished the recordings in three months, Rogovin became a fixture in that church and a handful of others for three years, capturing the transitory nature of the buildings and the emotion of the services.

"By going to do photography in the churches I felt, here's an opportunity to speak out again," Rogovin recalls. Eventually, he would close his optometry practice and devote all his time to photography.

Rogovin's work is in the collections of more than 20 institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art and the J. Paul Getty Center.

He has had one-man shows at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Smithsonian Institution and Buffalo's Albright-Knox Art Gallery.

But, in the living room of the Buffalo home in which he and Anne have lived for more than 50 years, Rogovin speaks most proudly of the photos that hang in a Buffalo subway station and line the walls at a neighborhood health clinic.

"To me that's the most important thing," he says, surrounded by books and an eclectic collection of ethnic art--but no television (too time consuming). "To have it on permanent display where the ordinary people come in . . . and see their own neighbors."

In virtually all of his work, Rogovin's subjects look into the camera--it's the only direction he gives--creating a sense of natural honesty. None of his photos is captioned; he prefers they speak for themselves.

Andres Garcia was an 18-year-old homeless heroin addict when the Rogovins approached him more than 30 years ago. By then the couple had been around enough to have gained the trust of the Puerto Rican, black, Native American and other ethnic groups that lived there.

"We used to love them," Garcia recalls. "The community used to call him the community photographer."

The neighborhood could be rough, but "the word was, you don't mess with the Rogovins," said Garcia, now a vice president in the Kaleida Health hospital system.

"The first six months was difficult because people thought I was sent by the FBI," Rogovin recalls. "As I photographed, they gradually realized that I was a friend and so they invited me and my wife to their homes and their cultural centers."

Only once was there a problem, when a man refused to let the Rogovins leave until they met his demand for money.

"He was high on drugs. We could see it," Rogovin recalls.

"He was the only one of hundreds" that caused trouble, Rogovin stresses.

"And we understand," Anne quickly adds.

The walls of Garcia's office, decorated with Rogovin's work, are an inadvertent gallery of the neighborhood's ills. There are three photographs of people who have died: an ex-convict succumbed to AIDS; a teen-age girl, a prostitute, recently died of a cocaine overdose. The third is a Vietnam veteran who died of liver disease he believed was brought on by Agent Orange.

"In this neighborhood there is such potential there, but you know, under the condition that exists in our society, very little of their potential will come to fruition," Rogovin explains, "and this is what I'm trying to say. Here they are. Pay attention to them."

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