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Milton Rogovin, Portraitist to the People

Milton Rogovin, one of the great documentary photographers of the twentieth century, died at his home in Buffalo, New York, on January 18. He was 101 years old – like many an old Red, outstripping the reaper far beyond the average limit for less kinetically idealistic men. As he lay dying, some of his children and grandchildren around him sang a song he’d been singing bits of just two days earlier:

…Life maybe be dreary,
But never the same,

Some days, it’s sunshine
Some days, it’s rain,

Swing Little Girl,
Swing high, to the sky,
And don’t ever look to the ground…

It’s a song Charlie Chaplin wrote, about looking for rainbows, “Swing Little Girl,” and the best send-off I can imagine for a man who combined passionate attention to the human condition with a lively sense of the absurd.

“I like to photograph people with problems,” Milton told The New York Times in 1994. No doubt Milton said that, and no doubt he meant it. But everyone has problems, even the rich. Even kings, who for hundreds of years sat for portraits with their favorite hound, in their favorite chair, presenting themselves with confidence or statesmanlike cool while intrigue, murder or insurrection boiled beyond the sitting room doors. Milton was dismissive of the ruling groups’ problems but not of the human desire to be recognized. What he did, his special gift as an artist, was to apply the same rules that govern the portraiture of kings to his portraits of people on the short end: workers and hustlers and others trying to keep it together, people who are typically invisible unless there’s a crisis, and even then, in the language of the kultura, they don’t have problems so much as they have a plight.

Milton became the portraitist to the people. Mostly, they were the people who shower after work, as United Steel Workers President Leo Gerard would say.  And it wasn’t their problems that attracted Milton.

The Buffalo steel worker on the job may be slick with grime and sweat, but Milton was not documenting his discomfort. Showered and cologned, seated in Saturday night clothes in front of a rococo mirror in his home, the same worker might be short on the rent, short on love, achy from work, who knows; in those instants when he was framed in the viewfinder nothing mattered but what the man chose to convey. We don’t know from Milton’s portraits of coal miners from around the world whether their mines were safe or their unions weak, whether their kids were truant or whether they themselves, smiling for the camera, were dying a little every day from the soot in their lungs. We don’t know if the girl on the street with the coquettish glance and the pencil between her teeth was flirting with danger anymore than we do about some long-lost painted child-queen.

What we do know is that Milton was making a record of a disappearing culture. He took most of these photographs in the 1970s and 1980s. The steel workers of Buffalo are gone now. The unionized miners of West Virginia and Virginia, mostly gone. The working class that lived better than its parents, bought houses, sent kids to college and didn’t have to apologize for a wage that was among the highest in the world, gone. The radio playing “Keep Your Head to the Sky” as the background to city kids’ lives, gone, replaced by a harsher score.

The Times obituary said that “the plight of the poor” drove Milton to take up leftist causes. I don’t remember Milton ever using the phrase, but he certainly may have. Milton was born in Brooklyn on December 30, 1909, and came of age in the Depression, during which his father lost everything including his life. He came of political age looking at the pictures that Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange and others took to advance the Farm Security Administration’s efforts to arouse sympathy for New Deal legislation. He was involved with trade unions and civil rights and joined the Communist Party at a time when the aesthetic of the left favored abjection or monumentalism. He and his late, dear wife, Anne, had prints of Kathe Kollwitz and art books of Diego Rivera and recordings of Paul Robeson in the house in Buffalo where they lived from 1942. One of Milton’s favorite poems was Brecht’s “A Worker Reads History” – “Each page a victory/At whose expense the victory ball?…”

All of these influenced him profoundly. And had everything been just a little different – had he set his eye to photography rather than optometry in 1931 – Milton Rogovin might well be among those famous names everyone associates with the WPA-era style of exquisite misery. If a worker smiled, if her child looked flirtatious, if anything about a scene contradicted the idea of life crushed under the wheel, such images would be left on the contact sheet, undeveloped, as they were with Lange’s famous migrant mother.

As it was, Milton missed engaging in that particular form of condescension. He took an ordinary degree from Columbia University and an ordinary job, examining people’s eyes and fitting them with glasses. In 1938 he moved to Buffalo, and he and his brother opened their own shop, on a street in the Lower West Side, a stone’s throw from downtown. He married, bought a camera, didn’t do much with it, served as a medic in England in World War II, came back to optometry and political work in Buffalo; and then one day in 1957 his ordinary life ended.

The front page of The Buffalo Evening News declared, “Rogovin Named as Top Red in Buffalo.” He had served as a kind of librarian for the party’s Buffalo chapter. The notion that Milton might be some Commie kingpin was as preposterous as the hearings with which he refused to cooperate. His optometry business crashed, his children’s circle of playmates vanished. Anne continued to work as a teacher, developing styles for working with disabled kids that would ultimately gain her national recognition, and Milton started playing around with that camera.

He built a dark room in his basement. The qualities of light and shadow fascinated him, as did experiments with flash techniques to capture dark skin tones in low and bright light. His first photo series, in the early 1960s, was of Buffalo’s storefront churches, selections of which appeared in Aperture with an essay by W. E. B. DuBois. Milton was not the best marketer of his work, but he was sharp to the value of collaboration, and throughout this second phase of his life, even as the left fragmented, he would draw on or seek out connections for artistic and political ends. He photographed miners in Mexico, Chile, Cuba, China, Zimbabwe, Scotland. He did a book with Pablo Neruda. He teamed up with Michael Frisch of the University of Buffalo for a pictorial and oral history, Portraits in Steel. He rescued his Lower West Side series from near-oblivion first in Triptychs: Buffalo’s Lower West Side Revisited, with Robert Coles, Stephen Jay Gould and me, and then, when that didn’t turn out so well because the publisher failed to get the book into stores, in The Forgotten Ones, with Dave Isay.

With the miners series he began doing posed portraits, and began photographing people at home and at work, an approach he continued when he returned to Buffalo and started documenting what would be the last labor force at Bethlehem Steel, Buffalo Forge, Republic Steel and Atlas Steel. He loved how people dressed and decorated their homes; loved the way they chose a pet or a child, a lover or hobby or charmed possession to represent themselves away from the pits or fiery mills. He let people pose as they liked, and he worked quickly, looking into his Rolleiflex.

“I think the camera helped people relax,” he once told me. “I’m not pointing it at them like a gun. I’m standing there looking down, who knows what I’m doing, and quite often I’ve taken the shot before they know it.”

For all his accomplishment, Milton was a guy with problems. In hindsight, blacklisting was the best thing that ever happened to him, but it didn’t seem like that at the time. Photography was a joy, but it also meant enduring rejection letters from publishers and galleries, sometimes three and four a week. The Spartan lunches of plain tuna fish, raw vegetables and a bland biscuit or two that Anne enforced stretched a tight budget and kept him alive, but Spartan is Spartan. Each photo series promised a new adventure, but when it was complete he was prone to the blues, which Anne became adept at banishing. His great love and closest collaborator, she died in 2003.

He made beautiful photographs, printed with great love and skill, but he was doing so in his own little rivulet off the cultural stream.

If his photography did not turn people into victims nor did it make them heroes; neither were his shots grotesque, ironic, vulgar, stolen on the sly. Not quite a modernist by the rules of social realism, too aesthetically formal for the sixties, too direct for postmodernism, too gritty for that school of Salgado that merged poverty with the style of fashion photography, Milton was a man out of time.

He never did want simply to make art, but if he did hope to shed light on “the plight of the poor,” his own artistry and the will of his subjects thwarted so simple an intention. When Milton started photographing the people who lived near his old optometry business on Buffalo’s Lower West Side, he began with his patients, then their friends or family, then people on the streets, people who had heard of him and wanted to be the star of their own story at least for a moment. He didn’t ask many questions. After the neighborhood people were assured that he wasn’t with the welfare department or the cops, he was content not to know what they did for a living, or even what most of their names were. He photographed them in their wedding outfits or communion dresses, in hot pants and high heels or do-rags and bedroom slippers. He photographed them in church, at parties, by graffitied walls, on the street after school or in a lull on the job, at home after all the children had been scrubbed clean or after a hard night. He took their addresses and always brought them a museum-quality print afterward.

When he returned to the neighborhood seven years later, he took a box of pictures to a local bodega to find his old subjects, tracked them down and photographed them again and again. I interviewed a number of these people in the early 1990s, after Milton’s third session with them. They thought he was funny, this old guy who came by now and then with his wife to take their picture. Some weren’t sure why he found them interesting, and others thought, Of course he’d find me interesting, look at my tattoos!

Milton liked the tattoos, but he didn’t need them. He wasn’t looking for freaks any more than he was looking for icons. At about this same time, I interviewed miners in Scotland for a documentary film on Milton for Channel Four’s “Rear Window” series in the UK. Some remembered Milton most because they’d talked politics; not long after he had been there taking pictures, Margaret Thatcher had attacked the miners union and shut the mines. But for most it wasn’t conversation that was memorable; it was the way he appreciated a tuba or a game of darts or carrier pigeons up on the roof: the things they loved and wanted to show off, their individualism beyond the job.

In the best sense possible, Milton cared about the class, even when the work was dodgy, even when it was gone. A guy with problems, an artist who worked a long time without enough recognition, he didn’t take the tired route. He didn’t treat people with problems as curiosities.

For more on the photographs, including current exhibitions, museum holdings, educational resources for teachers, organizations, etc., see www.miltonrogovin.com. . An exhibition of his photographs  just opened yesterday at the Gage Gallery, Roosevelt University, 18 S. Michigan Ave., Chicago, IL . It will be up until June.

JOANN WYPIJEWSKI  grew up in Buffalo. She is on the road in a ’63 Valiant, sending stories to CounterPunch as she goes. She can be reached at jwyp@earthlink.com

 

 

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