The making of a social documentary photographer

Book Review Milton Rogovin: The Making of a Social Documentary Photographer By Melanie Herzog Seattle: Center for Creative Photography and University of Washington Press, 2006 176 pp, paperback, $30

In 1957, Milton Rogovin was an optometrist in Buffalo. Today, at age 98, he is one of the country’s foremost documentary photographers.

How does one go from being a Buffalo optometrist to becoming an internationally recognized documentary photographer? That is the story told in Melanie Herzog’s lavishly illustrated biography, “Milton Rogovin: The Making of a Social Documentary Photographer.”

As an epigraph to one of the book’s chapters, Herzog uses an apt quote from Anatoly Lunacharsky: 'For no one determines his own way, but the way of any man is determined, to a great extent, by his times and surroundings.' Milton Rogovin’s biography illustrates the truth of that statement.

Milton Rogovin was born on December 30, 1909, to a Russian-Jewish immigrant family. His father peddled fruits and vegetables and then opened a small dry goods store. Rogovin remembers there was no end to his mother’s work. When she wasn’t busy cooking, sewing, and cleaning, she worked in the family store.

In 1927, Rogovin entered Columbia University to study optometry. Then came the Great Depression.

It was in the context of the Great Depression that Milton Rogovin was radicalized. In 1933, unemployment in the US reached 25 percent. Rogovin says, 'What I saw around me and personally experienced completely changed my thinking. I could no longer be indifferent to people, especially the poor and forgotten ones.'

Rogovin attended classes organized by the Communist Party USA and became convinced that 'socialism was the path we should take to create a more equitable society.'

It was through the radical press that he discovered the writings and photographs of Jacob Riis, who was 'trying to make people aware of the dreadful conditions of people living on the East Side of Manhattan,' and of Lewis Hine’s photographs 'showing children working in coal mines, glass blowing factories, and textile mines.' He also became familiar with the work of Francisco Goya, Honore Daumier and Kathe Kollwitz. These photographers and artists were to have a lasting influence on his work.

Through a friend, Bernard Hermann, who would later become famous as the composer of many of the scores of Alfred Hitchcock’s films, including “Psycho,” Rogovin developed an interest in and appreciation for classical music. That appreciation is reflected in the title that he chose for one of his works, 'Quartets,” four sets of photographs showing subjects over the span of decades.

In 1942, Rogovin bought his first camera from a friend, a professional photographer, who also gave him some lessons in developing and printing. A year later, while serving in the Air Force, he entered a photograph of a waterfall in a contest. It won first prize.

Had it not been for McCarthyism, Rogovin’s photography might have remained just a hobby; but McCarthyism profoundly changed his life. In 1957, Rogovin was called before the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). The press called him 'Buffalo’s Number One Red.' Although he and his brother kept the optometry office open, many of their patients left them, fearing guilt by association.

Rogovin recalls, 'As it turned out, there was also a positive side to these attacks.' A friend, a professor of music at Buffalo State College, invited Rogovin to accompany him and take photographs while he made sound recordings in an African American storefront church. 'I readily accepted my friend’s offer since I felt I could once again speak out about the problems of the poor, but this time through my photography,' said Rogovin.

The result was Rogovin’s “Storefront Churches” series, which was published in Aperture magazine with an introduction by Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois. Rogovin said the series was a “crucial factor in turning me away from being a casual photographer to being a committed social documentary photographer.'

Since that first series, Rogovin has produced series documenting the lives of working people in New York, Appalachia, Scotland, Cuba, Zimbabwe, Mexico, France, Czechoslovakia, Spain, Germany, Chile and China, including the lives of coal miners and steelworkers. Explaining his choice of subjects, Rogovin adds, 'I … look at things from a Marxist perspective…. I feel my priority should be to create…. a better understanding of the problems facing working people, the unemployed, the women, the children—the ‘forgotten ones.'

Rogovin sometimes disavows an interest in aesthetics. Herzog quotes him as saying, 'They always ask me about lines. I don’t know from lines.' Yet, Herzog writes, in 'talking about particular photographs, he articulates ways in which ‘everything works,’ including details that provide visual balance, areas of light and dark, and, yes, lines.' The 126 photographs in the book beautifully illustrate that aesthetic awareness.

To return to the original question, how does an optometrist become one of the country’s foremost documentary photographers, Milton Rogovin provides a succinct answer: 'In the 1950s when the federal government tried to silence those of us organizing for the rights of working people, I refused to be silenced. I turned to documentary photography as a way of speaking out.” As Herzog’s biography shows, that is part of the answer but not the whole answer.

Everyone interested in photography and working class culture owes a debt of gratitude to Melanie Herzog and the Center for Creative Photography and the University of Washington press for producing this piece of American history.