Het filmpje hierbij, -hij was toen drieënnegentig- zegt meer dan alle mogelijke beschrijvingen van zijn fotowerk waarmee hij pas begon toen hij 48 was.
Als gediplomeerd opticien had hij, na de bankencrash van 1929 oog voor het lot van degenen die dag in dag uit in armoede moesten leven.
Geboren in 1909 uit een familie van Joodse immigranten uit Litauen had hij naast liefde voor zijn job grote belangstelling voor ‘workers’ rights’.
In de optiek van ‘maak zichtbaar’ wat je leven bepaalt, kon hij vanuit zijn vak -hij opende een praktijk in Buffalo-, ook zijn ogen dienstbaar maken via de fotografische lens, zeker nadat hij in 1952 was opgeroepen voor het Huis van ‘on-Amerikaanse’ activiteiten.
The Buffalo Evening News immediately labeled him “Buffalo’s Top Red” and the persecution that followed significantly impacted his business and his family. Rogovin later stated that though his voice had been silenced, he would not be silenced. And so in 1958, Rogovin began making photographs that communicated his social concern. His first series was on Buffalo’s black storefront churches and these images showed both the poverty and the vitality of their environment. Seen by W.E.B. Dubois, the pictures made their way to Minor White and were eventually published in Aperture Magazine in 1962.
In 1972, at the age of 63, Rogovin began to photograph Buffalo’s Lower West Side. Turning up on streets ranging from blue collar family neighborhoods to places where it was dangerous to ask too many questions (the reason many of the pictures are un-named). Rogovin photographed indoors and outdoors, individuals and family groups, as he sought to convey the truth of the lives of his subjects and their environment.
Returning to this neighborhood for three decades, Rogovin created triptychs and quartets by photographing the same individuals or families with each visit. The result is a collection of photographs which provide an extraordinary look at the passage of time as well as tremendous insight into the lives of diverse ethnic groups including Puerto Rican, African American, Native American, and Italian families over the course of thirty years. Rogovin completed the Lower West Side series at the age of 92.
Rogovin’s photographs are now in the permanent collections of over two dozen prominent museums around the world, including the Biblotheque Nationale in Paris, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the Center For Creative Photography at the University of Arizona-Tucson and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
In 1999, the Library of Congress acquired 1,130 of Rogovin’s master prints, along with his negatives and contact sheets. The irony was not lost on Rogovin that the government that persecuted him in the 1950’s now celebrated his work as a champion of the poor and working class half a century later.
Hij stierf in 2011, enkele weken na zijn 101ste verjaardag.
“Once you’ve studied the pictures for a while, they begin to speak. The people in the pictures hold still — so patiently, that you can study them at your leisure. And when you’re wholly inside the picture, the people speak. They tell you their life-stories. Their political opinions. They confess. They accuse. They laugh. They sigh because they’re tired. They open their hearts to you. This is how we love, they say, and this is how we hate, and this is why we didn’t get anywhere, and this is our youth, and these our dreams of glory, and this is what our parents looked like, and here is my weak point, and here is my strength….I’ll have to ask you to write your own caption. Look at them closely. Look into the people’s eyes and let them speak. They tell you about their lives….”
In 2003, Rogovin summed up his work: “All my life I’ve focused on the poor. The rich ones have their own photographers.”
Anne Rogovin, Milton’s wife, died from brain cancer on July 7, 2003. She was surrounded by her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. Besides being a special education teacher, a parent, and an activist for peace and justice, Anne played an important role in Milton’s photography. She often accompanied him when he took his photographs in Buffalo and around the world. Anne encouraged Milton and was the inspiration behind many of his photography series. Anne will always be in our hearts.
“When you look at these pictures, you know there was no monkey business, and that I was not sneaking around trying to steal pictures of people.” There is a directness to his portraits, which celebrate his subjects’ everyday lives, and have a casual empathy reminiscent of family photographs. “The only thing I asked them was to look at the camera.”