Milton Rogovin: Photographer who chronicled the lives of working people and impoverished Americans

Milton Rogovin, blacklisted during the McCarthy era, was an optometrist who went on to become one of America's best-known social documentary photographers. For more than 50 years, his award-winning photographs chronicled and championed the rights of the disenfranchised, the working class and the underprivileged. He called these people "the forgotten ones".

Rogovin published several books, and his work was exhibited internationally; his images are held in major collections including those at the J Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, The Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, MoMA in New York, the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, and The Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Today, his entire archive resides in the Library of Congress in Washington DC.

Born in Brooklyn in 1909 to Jewish Lithuanian immigrants, Rogovin was the third of three sons to Jacob and Dora, who ran a dry-goods business. He studied optometry at Columbia University, graduating in 1931, before moving to Buffalo in 1938 to open his own practice. In the interim, his parents lost their home and business to bankruptcy during the Great Depression.

Before his move Rogovin had worked as an optometrist in Manhattan and became increasingly distressed at the plight of the poor and unemployed; he began to get involved in leftist causes. He attended classes sponsored by the Communist Party-run New York Workers School and was introduced to the social-documentary photographs of Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine.

In 1942, Rogovin married Anne Snetsky, a teacher, before volunteering for the army and serving for three years in England, working as an optometrist. After the war, he returned to his practice in Buffalo (run in his absence by his brother) and joined the local chapter of the Optical Workers Union; he also served as librarian for the Buffalo branch of the Communist Party.

In 1957, with Cold War anti-Communism rife in the US, Rogovin was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee, but refused to testify. Discredited – without having been convicted of any offence – and with his business all but ruined by the publicity, he began taking pictures, focusing on Buffalo's poor and dispossessed in the mainly black neighbourhood around his practice. He lived on his wife's teaching salary and was mentored by the photographer Minor White.

Initially, Rogovin's advances were met with suspicion by the black community, who suspected him of being from the police or FBI. He gradually built trust, giving away prints of portraits in exchange for sittings. He never told his subjects what to do, allowing them to pose in their own settings and clothes. His three-year documentation of Buffalo's black storefront churches and the communities surrounding them was his first major project. In October 1962, White published the series in Aperture magazine, with an introduction by the Civil Rights activist and journalist WEB Du Bois.

A 10-year project documenting the lives of Appalachian miners, and photographs of Native Americans on reservations near Buffalo followed, and Rogovin went on to photograph miners from around the world. He also created a series, Working People, photographs of steel and factory workers from New York. In 1967, he was invited to Chile by the left-wing poet Pablo Neruda; there he photographed Neruda's home and worked on the island of Chiloé. Neruda wrote an introduction to the series of Rogovin's Chiloé photographs.

In 1972, Rogovin embarked on perhaps his most notable work, a project on Buffalo's impoverished Lower West Side community, which saw him revisit and re-photograph over the next three decades. Also in 1972 he earned a Master of Arts in American studies from the University at Buffalo, where he taught documentary photography from 1972 to 1974. In 1983 he won the W Eugene Smith Memorial Fund Award for Documentary Photography, and in 2007 received the Cornell Capa Award from the International Centre of Photography in New York City. In 2003, he was the subject of an award-winning short documentary film by Harvey Wang, Milton Rogovin: The Forgotten Ones.

In 2003, Rogovin summed up his work: "All my life I've focused on the poor. The rich ones have their own photographers." As his health declined, Rogovin used a wheelchair and no longer took photographs. His activism, however, remained undimmed – he attended political rallies and anti-war protests into his final years – and his social conscience remained acute.

Martin Childs

Milton Rogovin, photographer: born Brooklyn, New York 30 December 1909; married 1942 Anne Snetsky (died 2003; one son, two daughters); died Buffalo, New York 18 January 2011.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Sport
Australia vs New Zealand live
cricket Follow over-by-over coverage as rivals New Zealand and Australia face off
News
Zayn has become the first member to leave One Direction. 'I have to do what feels right in my heart,' he said
peopleWe wince at anguish of fans, but his 1D departure shows the perils of fame in the social media age
Life and Style
Researchers found that just 10 one-minute swill-and-spit sessions are enough to soften tooth enamel and make teeth vulnerable to erosion
health
News
i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
The Regent Street Cinema’s projection room in the 1920s
film
News
Leah Devine is only the ninth female to have made the Young Magician of the Year final since the contest began more than 50 years
peopleMeet the 16-year-old who has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year
News
Jonathan Anderson was born in Northern Ireland but now based between London, where he presents a line named JW Anderson
peopleBritish designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
News
Andy Davidhazy at the beginning (left) and end (right) of his hike
video
News
Taylor Swift is applying to trademark song lyrics from 1989
people
Voices
The popularity of TV shows such as The Liver Birds encouraged Liverpudlians to exaggerate their Scouse accent
voicesWe exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

How to make your own Easter egg

Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

Cricket World Cup 2015

Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing