Famous New Yorker: Milton Rogovin

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Milton Rogovin, 1978 Photo © Dennis Enser, Buffalo News

Milton Rogovin’s career as an eye doctor seemed to be ruined when he was exposed as a Communist, but the scandal only led him to start a new career and win fame as an acclaimed photographer of working-class life.

The son of Lithuanian immigrants, Milton Rogovin was born in New York City on December 30, 1909. He earned a degree in optometry from Columbia University in 1931, the same year that his father died and his family lost their dry-goods business. Seeing widespread poverty during the Great Depression made Milton a political radical. He became a union organizer for optical workers in New York City and Buffalo, where he moved in 1938. When he started his own practice in Buffalo, union men were his most loyal patients.

Like some Americans during the Depression, Rogovin believed that communism – the collective ownership of property under a working-class government – was the only hope for working-class Americans. As Communists, he and his wife helped organize unions and register people to vote. They hoped that more Americans would see the need for radical social and political change.

Many more Americans saw Communism as a form of tyranny. They believed that American Communists served a foreign Communist power, the Soviet Union. The House of Representatives’ Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) investigated Communist “subversion” throughout the country, while the FBI became suspicious of Rogovin in the 1940s. An FBI informant who had joined the Buffalo Communists called Rogovin the city’s leading Communist at a HUAC hearing in October 1957. Called to testify, Rogovin refused to answer most of the committee’s questions. The Fifth Amendment to the Constitution allowed him not to give testimony that could be used against him in a criminal case. Rogovin feared that he would be persecuted simply for being a Communist, but many observers assumed that he had real crimes to hide.

Rogovin estimated that he lost half his patients after the hearings. Convinced that the government wanted to silence him, he wanted to show people what he really stood for. He found a way in photography. Rogovin had owned a camera since World War II, but only started using it creatively after the HUAC hearings. He wanted to capture the lives of the working-class people he’d always wanted to help, first in Buffalo and then around the world.

Rogovin’s photographs of storefront churches in Buffalo were published in the prestigious Aperture magazine in 1962. Later, he traveled the world, often by invitation, photographing miners and other laborers at their jobs and in their neighborhoods. He dubbed them The Forgotten Ones in an acclaimed collection of stark yet dignified black-and-white photos published in 1985. By then, his photos had appeared everywhere from art-photography journals to foreign picture magazines to university calendars. Throughout his second career, he returned to Buffalo to photograph changing neighborhoods and new generations of working-class residents in the Lower West Side.

Milton Rogovin long outlived his political disgrace. His Communist ties didn’t overshadow his achievements as a photographer when he died at the age of 101 on January 18, 2011. The government that once suspected him of being an enemy now keeps his photographs as national treasures in the Library of Congress.

 

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