Working-Class Hero

The Center for Creative Photography spotlights Milton Rogovin's portraits of the forgotten people

In 1957, the House Un-American Activities Committee--the notorious HUAC--cast a disapproving eye on Milton Rogovin's trips to Mexico.

A Buffalo optometrist-turned-photographer, Rogovin had traveled through central Mexico and Chiapas a few years earlier, taking black-and-white pictures of the region's indigenous people. A few are on display in the opening panels of his exhibition at the Center for Creative Photography, Milton Rogovin: Photographer.

In one, a handsome Indian woman selling iguanas looks forthrightly up at the camera, a slight smile playing about her lips. In another, the tiny flames burning on candles illuminate a man's careworn face. In still another, a woman is posed majestically, but she pulls her dark blanket tightly around her body, as if to protect herself from her sorrows.

But the HUAC members were not particularly interested in Rogovin's empathetic portraits of the wretched of the Earth. They were convinced that the Mexico trip had something to do with an alleged Puerto Rican nationalist plot to assassinate former President Harry Truman. (The show's archival materials include a transcript of their questions and Rogovin's answers.) What they wanted to know was: Did Rogovin go to Mexico at the same time that some Puerto Rican communists convened there?

"I will decline to answer under the First and Fifth Amendments," Rogovin politely replied. He gave the same answer to a long list of other leading questions, including the classic, "Are you, this minute, a member of the Communist Party?"

The next day, a sensational headline in Rogovin's hometown newspaper, the Buffalo Evening News, named him the "Top Red in Buffalo." Never mind that Rogovin was a vet who had served overseas in World War II. The article detailed his home address, for the convenience of its red-hating readers, and helpfully noted that he was an optometrist.

Outraged customers marched off to buy their eyeglasses elsewhere, and Rogovin's three children found their friends going AWOL, as the photographer recounts in the hefty exhibition catalog. But Rogovin, now 96, also notes, "As it turned out, there was also a positive result to all these attacks."

Deprived of a decent optometry livelihood, Rogovin turned his full attention to photography. Over the next 45 years, he made thousands of portraits in the United States and abroad, of working people, of poor people and of that particularly troubling amalgam, the working poor. The show, celebrating Rogovin's forthcoming gift of his archive to the CCP, samples most of his series, from a project on black urban churches to one documenting miners worldwide.

HUAC had been right about at least one thing: Rogovin was a lefty, with a healthy awareness of the injustices in American society. Growing up in New York, the child of immigrant Russian Jews, he was radicalized by the Depression.

"What I saw around me and personally experienced completely changed my way of thinking," he writes. "I could no longer be indifferent to the problems of people, especially the poor, the forgotten ones."

Influenced in part by Lewis Hine, whose early-20th-century photographs of kids laboring in mills and coal mines helped sway national opinion against child labor, Rogovin became a classic documentary photographer of people on the margins.

Largely self-taught, for decades, he wandered Buffalo's most impoverished--and sometimes dangerous--neighborhoods with his late wife, Anne, photographing African Americans, Puerto Ricans, urban Native Americans, Muslim Yemeni immigrants. He pictured them with dignity, posed around the Christmas tree, dancing with friends or sitting amid their prized possessions, their family snapshots and knickknacks circling them in secular still lifes.

In "Lower West Side," 1972, a proud mother has lined her kids up in the front yard of their aluminum-sided house. They look like they're on their way to a wedding, the girls in stiff polyester ankle-length dresses, the boy in a pint-size tuxedo. Their modest dwelling and department-store clothes will never make the pages of Better Homes and Gardens or Vogue, but in this photo, at least, they're treated with respect.

Sometimes, Rogovin paired photos of his subjects at work, in their sweat and soot, with images of them at home, cleaned up, their arms around their kids. In "Working People, Atlas Steel," 1978, a round-bellied man is pictured first at the foundry in a stained and torn T-shirt. Next, he's in a velour top, standing proudly with the fruits of his labor, a motorboat so big that it sails out of the photo at either end. And in a follow-up, eight years later, the same man, now bearded, has evolved into a doting dad in a den, his hands on the shoulders of a beloved daughter and son.

In his first series after the HUAC disaster, "Storefront Churches, 1958-1961," Rogovin documented the hidden world of Buffalo's black churches. Raised in quiet Jewish synagogues, he reveled in the church's shouts and songs, a give-and-take that he called the "concerto" between the preachers and the congregation. "Be Filled With the Spirit" reads a sign over a preacher in one. A man in a button-down suit lets loose with a tambourine in another. Elsewhere, a woman in a near trance twists and shouts.

Some black professionals, friends of Rogovin, objected at first to this material, saying African Americans had passed beyond such rituals. But when the photos were published by the photographer Minor White in the photo magazine Aperture, no less an authority than W.E.B. DuBois gave them the seal of approval, writing in an introduction that the pictures captured "the Music of Negro religion ... which remains the most original and beautiful expression of human life and longing yet born on American soil."

America, particularly Buffalo, provided Rogovin with most of his subject material, and today, the city's most popular piece of public art is a series of his working-class portraits translated into porcelain in a subway station. But he also traveled. A 1960s project about the distressed miners of Appalachia inspired him to go around the world. In mining pictures taken in France, Cuba, China, Zimbabwe, Czechoslovakia and elsewhere, Rogovin assembled an international brotherhood (and sometimes sisterhood) of sooty-faced workers, all of them returned from the perilous underground.

Called "Family of Miners," the series finds their common ground. A Chinese man balances his load on a stick over his shoulders; a blonde Appalachian woman grins behind a face full of coal dust; a bearded Cuban stands with his buddies at the entrance to their particular hellhole.

Yet the families in the poor districts of Buffalo kept his loyalty, and he tracked people there over three and sometimes four decades. (The last pictures in the show were taken in 2002, when he was 93 years old.) One of the "Lower West Side Triptychs" poignantly traces a relationship between grandfather and granddaughter over 19 years. In 1973, the grandpa beams over the baby asleep in her stroller, but by 1992, their wheeled positions are reversed. The grown granddaughter, now standing on her own two feet, lovingly embraces the aged man in his wheelchair.

The "Lower West Side Quartets" go one decade further, into the 21st century. In one of the series, a Puerto Rican mother and father pose with their nine children on the family's front steps in 1973. Subsequent pictures chart the comings and goings of the offspring. By 1992, Mom and Dad are alone with a family portrait and a guitar. In 2002, though, their joys have multiplied a hundredfold. They're still poor, but they've got a kind of wealth that Rogovin is brilliant at capturing. They've got each other; the father has his guitar, and they're surrounded by the crown of old age, a halo of grandchildren.

Comments (0)

Add a comment

Add a Comment

Tucson Weekly

Best of Tucson Weekly

Tucson Weekly