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Milton Rogovin dies at 101; social documentary photographer captured 'the forgotten ones'

Rogovin was an optometrist in Buffalo, N.Y., who found his calling after being blacklisted in the Red Scare. He photographed the working class, in particular those living in a six-square-block area of Buffalo.

January 20, 2011|Los Angeles Times staff and wire reports
  • Milton Rogovin, shown in 2000 at an exhibit of his photos in Buffalo, N.Y., took up photography during the Red Scare. His pictures recorded the lives of the poor and the dispossessed.
Milton Rogovin, shown in 2000 at an exhibit of his photos in Buffalo, N.Y.,… (David Duprey / Associated…)

Milton Rogovin, a celebrated photographer of the downtrodden who found his calling after he was blacklisted during the Red Scare of the 1950s, died Tuesday at his home in Buffalo, N.Y., his family said. He was 101.

"His work is vital and important in the evolution of social documentary photography," Louis Grachos, director of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, told the Buffalo News in 2009. "He's recognized as a national treasure."

His pictures recorded the lives of the poor, the dispossessed, the working class — in particular those living in a six-square-block Buffalo neighborhood near his optometry practice.

"The rich have their photographer. I photograph the 'forgotten ones,' " Rogovin often said, employing a phrase that was also the title of his first book.

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

He launched his 40-year photography career with a series on Buffalo's storefront black churches. Later 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.

"There's a naivete about his photography," photographer Harvey Wang told the Washington Post in 2003. "You take one great photo, it's an accident, two it's a fluke. When you take as many as he did, it's art."

Born Dec. 30, 1909, in New York City, Rogovin later said he became politically active because of his impoverished childhood.

He graduated with a bachelor's degree from Columbia University in 1931and 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.

After the war, he organized a chapter of an optometrists' union and served as a librarian for the Communist Party of Buffalo. In 1957, he was called before the House of Representatives' Committee on Un-American Activities.

The next day, a headline in a Buffalo newspaper read "Rogovin Named as Top Red in Buffalo, Balks at Nearly All Queries."

The negative publicity soon caused his optometry practice to lose business, and Rogovin turned to photography.

"My voice had been silenced," Rogovin said in 2003 in the Washington Post, "so I decided to speak through my camera."

One major project was "Triptychs," which documented an impoverished area of Buffalo beginning in the early 1970s. He returned in the early 1980s and 1990s to photograph many of his original subjects.

His photographs are in the collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles and have been exhibited by many major institutions.

Anne, his schoolteacher wife, died in 2003 at 84.

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

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