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A photographer of rare insight Milton Rogovin, famed for illuminating human condition, dies at 101

Milton Rogovin, the Buffalo social documentary photographer who became internationally renowned for revealing the unsung stories and inherent dignity of the poor, the disinherited and the working class, died Tuesday morning in his Chatham Avenue home from complications related to a mild heart attack.

Mr. Rogovin, who appeared joyous at a birthday celebration three weeks ago attended by family and friends, was 101.

"He was working in a very rich documentary tradition, but he extended it in very interesting and innovative ways," said Sarah Greenough, senior curator of photographs at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. "I think he has created a fascinating body of work that is quite rare in social documentary photography, and gives his work great strength."

Mr. Rogovin turned to photography not long after being hauled before the House Un-American Activities Committee in October 1957 for leftist political activity.

His first social documentary series, "Storefront Churches -- Buffalo," was photographed on the East Side and completed in 1961. His photography would take him from West Side street corners and Lackawanna steel factories to fields in Chile and coal mines in Appalachia, Zimbabwe, Spain, Mexico, Cuba and elsewhere.

"The rich have their photographers. I photograph the forgotten ones," Mr. Rogovin often said.

His photography, slow to gain recognition, today is in permanent collections around the world, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles and the Cleveland Museum of Art to the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and the Museum Folkwang in Essen, Germany.

"What's really great about Milton is that he was a humane photographer who photographed people in the context of where they lived and worked," said Douglas Dreishpoon, chief curator of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.

"They were very intimate slices of life, not big, overblown and melodramatic photographs. The act of photography for Milton was a way of remembering, memorializing and elevating."

The Albright-Knox, like the Burchfield Penny Art Center, has Mr. Rogovin's photographs in its permanent collection, and mounted two exhibitions of his work.

But Mr. Rogovin maintained that he was just as happy to have his artwork displayed on large porcelain enamel panels inside Buffalo's Humboldt Station and in Columbus Community Health Center -- both places with their share of "the forgotten ones."

"That's where I wanted my photographs to be shown," Rogovin told The Buffalo News in 2003. "People come off the trains and see the photographs -- friends, neighbors."

In 1999, the Library of Congress became the permanent repository of Mr. Rogovin's negatives, contact sheets and 1,300 prints, the first time since the 1970s that the library sought archives of a living documentary photographer.

In 2007, the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, Ariz., acquired the master collections of 3,250 photos and other materials for its archive.

Mr. Rogovin's poignant studies of laborers have been published in major photography magazines in the United States and around the world, including Germany, Russia, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Poland, Hungary, Sweden and Japan.

His dozen books include "Milton Rogovin: The Forgotten Ones," "Portraits in Steel," "Milton Rogovin: The Mining Photographs" and "Windows That Open Inward," a collaboration with Chilean poet Pablo Neruda.

Mr. Rogovin's best-known book is "Triptychs: Buffalo's Lower West Side Revisited," which was published in 1994.

Milton and Anne Rogovin -- his wife of 61 years who assisted and encouraged him, and often propelled him forward when his ambition or spirit lagged -- visited a six-block area three times in 10-year intervals from 1972 to 1992 to portray mostly Puerto Ricans and African-Americans living in the formerly Italian neighborhood.

Mr. Rogovin was 63 when the project began.

The Rogovins returned to the neighborhood to photograph some of the same people in 2002, with photos appearing in a subsequent book, also titled "The Forgotten Ones."

"It made everybody happy when Milton came around. He and Anne made us feel really important," recalled Monica "Kiki" Cruz, whom Mr. Rogovin first photographed when she was 3. "He made my mom feel like a movie star," she told The News in 2003.

Jose Esquilin, another of the "Triptychs" subjects, agreed. "Milton and Anne were the nicest people I ever met," he recalled the same year. " I felt really humbled around him."

The photographer never posed anybody, and would generally take no more than three or four frames for each image as he looked down into his Rolleiflex camera.

Mr. Rogovin, a first-generation New York Jew, was born Dec. 30, 1909, to Ukrainian parents. He graduated from optometry school at Columbia University in 1931, and the poverty of the Great Depression made an indelible impression.

He became politically active on such issues as Social Security, unemployment insurance and voter registration for blacks.

After taking an optometric job in Buffalo, Mr. Rogovin opened his own shop in 1938. He married Anne Snetsky in 1942 and was drafted into World War II, serving as a medic doing optometric work in England.

After the war, Mr. Rogovin returned to Buffalo, helped organize the Optical Workers Union and became a member of the Buffalo chapter of the Communist Party, mainly distributing printed material.

It was in the waning days of McCarthyism -- so-named for Wisconsin Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy's crusade against communists, real and imagined -- when Mr. Rogovin and a few other Western New Yorkers were called before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

"Are you, this minute, a member of the Communist Party?" a committee member asked Mr. Rogovin. He declined to answer on constitutional grounds.

The headline in The Buffalo Evening News the next day read: "Rogovin Named as Top Red in Buffalo, Balks at Nearly All Queries." The article was one of five that day about the suspected presence of communists in Western New York. "I was active in radical movements at that time, especially in the African-American community, and of course I refused to answer their questions," Mr. Rogovin told The News in 2000.

As with many who refused to give names and considered the hearings an ideological witch hunt, the repercussions on the Rogovins and their three children, Paula, Ellen and Mark, were devastating.

The Rogovins and their North Buffalo neighbors were questioned several times by FBI agents, and some neighbors reported on their activities to law enforcement. But most disturbing of all, Mr. Rogovin said -- even more than the precipitous decline in the optometric business he owned with his brother Samuel -- was the refusal by many families to let their children play with the Rogovins'.

If there was a silver lining, it was that with reduced hours at work, Mr. Rogovin taught himself photography as a way to illuminate the human condition. "What does an optometrist do? They give you vision so that you can see," Dreishpoon said. "And so the lens of the camera was an extension of Milton's perceptive and humane eye."

Later years brought Mr. Rogovin considerable local and state acclaim, from honorary doctorate degrees and a key to the City of Buffalo to a New York State Governor's Arts Award and Buffalo News Outstanding Citizen distinction.

He was deeply saddened in 2003 by the death of his wife, nationally recognized in her own right for writing self-help books about children and innovative classroom work for children with mental disabilities.

But with the help of caregivers, Mr. Rogovin continued living in the same brown stucco and wood house on Chatham.

Until last month, Mr. Rogovin even participated regularly in a weekly anti-war vigil held on Elmwood Avenue, holding a sign that read, "Healthcare, Not Warfare."

Monday night, hours before Mr. Rogovin passed away, he lay motionless but comfortable in his bed. On the walls were a poster showing doves and the words "Peace & Freedom" and another featuring a Yemeni man and his daughter advertising a Rogovin exhibition.

A book of Yiddish poems sat on the nightstand, framed photos of his late wife were on the dresser with the words "My Annie," and nearby was a stack of favored CDs by Maria Callas, Paul Robeson and Pete Seeger.

A tall cactus Mr. Rogovin obtained in 1938 stood straight in one corner, while on the other side of the room were well-worn books -- of politics, of poetry, of history and art.

And below his bed was the basement darkroom, where for a half-century Mr. Rogovin mixed darkroom chemicals to produce his striking gelatin silver prints.

With Mr. Rogovin's son, Mark, and grandchildren Aliya Hart and Malaika Reed nearby, daughters Paula and Ellen surrounded him and sang a verse from one of his favorite songs: Charlie Chaplin's "Swing Little Girl."

"If you're looking for rainbows," they sang, "look up to the sky. But never, no never, look down."

e-mail: msommer@buffnews.com

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