January 20–July 14, 2011
About the Photographer
What defines a working-class eye? For Milton Rogovin, an optometrist by profession and an artist of political necessity, this eye sought to view the working class as resilient, dignified, and worthy of admiration. Church parishioners, bar customers, factory workers, porch and stoop sitters—these are the “forgotten ones,” according to Rogovin. By focusing his lens on these diverse people and their environments of work and leisure, Rogovin strives to artistically represent, and thereby help us to more fully understand, the people who labor in neglected yet vibrant communities.
Collectively, Rogovin’s photographic series of people at work and in the neighborhood depict America’s last self-defined generation of working-class Americans from the 1960s to the 1980s. While journalists and academics often view these people as “unskilled” laborers, welfare queens, undeserving poor, or even potential criminals, Rogovin depicts them as members of tight social networks who together struggle to overcome harsh environments and economic hardships in the wake of deindustrialization. These photographs show people who did not necessarily try to emulate middle-class models of nuclear families, male breadwinners, and racially homogenous communities. Instead, Rogovin suggests that people in these communities built complex networks of trust and social expectations out of economic necessity and, in so doing, often exuded a spirit that belied the tough realities of their environments. Milton and his beloved wife Anne Rogovin worked to earn the trust of this community through their self-effacing manner, their earthy sense of humor, and the photographic results that they often gave back to the people in them so to preserve and shape their own memories. In short, Rogovin’s vision illuminates a deeply democratic dialogue and respectful approach to portraying working-class people and that’s what makes his images so unique and compelling.
Unlike other artists who mastered the technique of photography and then cultivated a unique perspective for viewing and depicting the world, Rogovin developed his way of seeing well before he mastered the camera as an instrument. Born in New York City in 1909, Milton grew up as the third son of Jewish immigrants who earned a living running a modest fabric and dry goods store. During the Depression the family “lost everything,” moving into the back area of their own store until their business went bankrupt. Milton, who had graduated with an optometry degree from Columbia University in 1931, sought out a “real education” thereafter to understand why society offered no security to people like his parents, who had put in a lifetime of hard work. He attended classes run by leftist political activists in New York and studied artists who depicted the poor and working class like Jacob Riis, Lewis Hine, and Käthe Kollwitz, as well as the images emerging from the New Deal Farm Security Administration’s photographers. In the 1930s, he became part of the Popular Front – a group of liberal and radical activists, workers, and artists who struggled against the spread of global fascism and sought to expand democracy for the working class. He joined the Optical Union, and when a job opened in Western New York, he moved there to become a charter member of union local 951, linking his profession to his activism.
In Buffalo, Milton met Anne Setters, who would become his lifetime partner and ally. When in 1939 Milton was fired for joining the picket line during a strike of optical employees, Anne supported his stand and encouraged him to open his own shop that catered primarily to unionists. They married three years later, just before Milton was inducted into the armed forces where he served in a medical unit in England. Milton and Anne had three children in the 1940s. Professionally, he became a co-partner at the Consumers Eyesight Service while she taught school children with special needs in Buffalo. They also continued their involvement in social justice campaigns, but the human rights values that emerged during the New Deal became increasingly “Un-American” by the 1950s. Subpoenaed to appear before the House of American Activities Committee in 1957, Rogovin refused to answer questions based on the first and fifth amendments; he did not name names. Neither did Anne, who refused to sign a loyalty oath to retain her Buffalo public school job (fortunately, she found another teaching job in the suburbs). The Buffalo Evening News deemed Milton a “ Buffalo’s Top Red” and, as a result, neighbors and customers shunned the Rogovin family and his optometry practice.
With his activism shunted and his business in decline, Milton began to use the camera to express his working-class eye. Invited by a musicologist to accompany him into Buffalo’s African American storefront churches, Milton readily accepted. Moved by what he saw and heard there, he continued to visit these churches on Sundays for the next three years. Milton also began wandering the streets of the Lower West Side of Buffalo, a neighborhood not far from his optometry office. Before the war, this six-block area had been largely Italian-American, but by the late 1960s it had become one of the state’s statistically poorest neighborhoods, with Puerto Ricans, African Americans, Native Americans, and white ethnics moving there. To complement this urban series, Rogovin traveled in the summers to Appalachia, where he documented miners and other rural natives living in the mountains of West Virginia and Kentucky.
Early in his career, Rogovin experimented with various camera and flash settings to translate his aesthetic vision of working-class life into the medium of photography. He built a darkroom in the basement of his home, and showed his photos to experts such as Minor White of Aperture, as well as members of his own family by posting images daily on a corkboard next to the kitchen table. After becoming more technically adept, he abandoned more expensive cameras for his Rolleiflex, a medium format, twin-lens reflex camera. This choice epitomized his democratic approach. The camera contained a 45-degree mirror that reflected the image so Rogovin did not aggressively “point and shoot” at his subjects. Instead he patiently bowed his head to look down into the camera on a tripod, often while he and Anne chatted with the people about to be photographed. This process allowed his subjects to become his collaborators as they chose how to pose for photographs on their own terms.
It’s difficult to see the American working class in the twenty-first century, whether we are removed from it or demographically within it. We acknowledge workers and people without work, but rarely do we obtain an angle of vision that puts aside our preconceived expectations to truly see. In these photos, Rogovin’s working-class eye becomes an education in seeing people as more than statistics. The people in these images are the very people who built this country and who make it work. And this form of seeing matters because its artistic representation has within it the capacity to widen the lens of consciousness, foster compassion, reshape belief, and make the world anew.
Press about the exhibition and the celebration of Milton Rogovin's life and work:
Exhibition made possible by generous financial support from Susan B. Rubnitz.
Sponsored by Roosevelt University's College of Arts and Sciences, the Chicago Center for Working-Class Studies, and the Labor and Working-Class History Association.