By Mark Feeney
Optometrists correct vision. So it's natural Milton Rogovin had optometry for a day job. His ambition with a camera was to correct vision, too. "The rich have their own photographers," he likes to say. "I photograph the forgotten ones."
In 1957, Rogovin (roh-GO-vin) appeared before the House Committee on Un-American Activities as an unfriendly witness. "Buffalo's Number One Red" a headline in the local paper called him. Thirty-nine years later the city gave him its Citizen of Distinction Award. Apparently, righteousness is good for the body as well as the soul: Rogovin turns 100 on Dec. 30.
It's been an unusual career. What centenarian's isn't? Rogovin didn't buy his first camera until he was in his early 30s. He was nearly 50 before he began taking serious photographs. Cataracts forced him to stop taking pictures several years ago.
During the intervening four decades, Rogovin made up for his late start. Minor White published him in Aperture magazine. Pablo Neruda collaborated with him. And that's while he was still maintaining his optometry practice. At first, Rogovin photographed mainly during the summer, on vacation. Once he retired, in 1978, he devoted himself to photography full time.
Devotion is the right word, as the small but sweeping survey "Milton Rogovin: A Clear View" makes clear. It runs at Gallery Kayafas through Jan. 10. Rogovin is someone for whom photography was neither an art (though there is much artistry in his work) nor a profession, but a calling.
These pictures of storefront churches in Buffalo from the 1950s, Appalachian poverty from the 1960s, European miners from the 1980s, and working people in Buffalo from the last four decades manage to be both implicitly political (there's no mistaking whose side Rogovin takes) and compellingly reportorial. His camera bears witness, but without any tendentiousness or grand effects. Think of these pictures as agitdoc rather than agitprop.
Rogovin doesn't hit a viewer over the head with his camera (though you suspect there are definitely individuals out there, never seen in his pictures, he wouldn't mind taking a swing at). Although the people Rogovin photographs may be up against it, they're not downtrodden. Neither does he impart any phony nobility to them. They're people trying to get by, attempting to make do, sometimes even managing to have a good time. It's not work and suffering. We also see people people dancing, playing music, in church, or dressed up.
The first two pictures in the show were shot when Rogovin was vacationing in Mexico in the '50s. They're emblematic. The man who took them clearly didn't consider himself an outsider staring at someone exotic. Instead, he's just one person trying to comprehend other persons. They may look a little different from him and have less money, but those differences don't matter. The only difference that matters is that Rogovin has a camera and they don't. We, even more than they, are the beneficiaries of that difference.
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.
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