Two days after Milton Rogovin died at his home in Buffalo on January 18, the Gage Gallery in Chicago opened an exhibition of his photographs called “The Working-Class Eye of Milton Rogovin.” Class was not merely Milton’s subject, it was the optic through which he saw the world, something that distinguished his work from what the culture had expected of social documentary photography since the 1930s.
His steelworkers and miners, prostitutes and hustlers, the retired and the unemployed, do not want our pity. They look into his camera from among the tools of their trade, on the streets where they work, at home among their treasures or alone against a bare wall. “Who built the seven gates of Thebes?” Milton used to quote Brecht. Who made the world we know? Where did they live? What did they love? And who is left behind? Milton read history and saw some of the people who made it in perspective. Like aristocrats and astronauts, they posed for their portraits, without, as he said, any “monkey business” from him.
He made beautiful photographs, printed with great skill, but he was in his own little rivulet off the cultural stream. If he did not make people victims nor did he make them heroes; neither were his shots grotesque, ironic, vulgar, stolen on the sly. Not quite a modernist by the rules of social realism, too aesthetically formal for the sixties, too direct for postmodernism, too gritty, too real for the Selgado school of gorgeous misery, Milton was a man out of time.
He was 101 when he died: a thirties man who had worked as an optometrist; a rank and file Communist whose importance was inflated by the fifties witch hunt; an everyday man whose world of work collapsed when the government branded him a danger, and who started over by picking up a camera. Eventually he became important in the world of art writers, museum acquisitions and the Library of Congress, which holds all his papers, negatives and thousands of prints. Today teachers, unions, researchers, community groups, can find a large selection of his photographs and other resources at www.miltonrogovin.com.
I met Milton through the mail in 1991, after I’d given his work a brief appreciative mention in a review/essay in The Nation. He read the magazine, and sent me a small print as a thank you. Giving away pictures was his practice, as was picking up collaborators. I was one for a time—working on a film for British television and on a book, Triptychs: Buffalo’s Lower West Side Revisited. We never could get the film shown in the US, and his pictures of people in that tough, polyglot neighborhood shot over a twenty-year span would elude broad recognition until Milton photographed the same people ten years later and turned their triptychs into quartets. By then he was 93 and could no longer print in his basement darkroom.
Love and the luck of many an old Red to maintain vim into the platinum years allowed him to taste success. Milton Rogovin had hoped to be a social reformer with his pictures, but he was really more an accompanist with the people who posed for him, a fellow traveler in the hustle and flow of life, and for that reason, one of the great documentary photographers of the twentieth century.