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Milton Rogovin, Photographing 'The Forgotten Ones'

Jacket cover for Rogovin's <i>The Forgotten Ones</i>
Jacket cover for Rogovin's The Forgotten Ones

Milton Rogovin has dedicated much of his life to changing people's perceptions, literally and figuratively. The 93-year-old photographer began his professional life as an optometrist in Buffalo, New York, with offices near the rough, forlorn neighborhoods of the city's Lower West Side. But Rogovin was also an outspoken critic of social inequalities, and in the 1950s, his political activism drew the attention of Sen. Joseph McCarthy's anti-Communist investigations.

"When the McCarthy committee got after me, my practice kind of fell pretty low," Rogovin recalls in an interview with NPR's Scott Simon. "My voice was essentially silenced, so I thought that photographing people... I would be able to speak out about the problems of people, this time through my photography."

In his late 40s, Rogovin began to phase out his optometric practice to concentrate on photographing the denizens of the Lower West Side. Once a working-class Italian neighborhood, the area had become home to African-American, Puerto Rican, Native-American and poor white families. He went out seeking, in his words, "the poorest of the poor," hoping to create on film a sympathetic portrait of their daily struggle for survival: "I wanted to really show them as decent human beings," he says.

"Most are considered los olvidados, the forgotten ones," Rogovin says of his subjects. "I felt they were people just like the rest of us, and they should not be abused in any way."

The Forgotten Ones is also the name of a newly released collection of Rogovin's photographs, published to accompany a retrospective of his work opening next week at the New York Historical Society. Over the past four decades, Rogovin has photographed thousands of subjects, capturing them in unstudied, natural poses -- the photographer says he never instructed his subjects on how to dress or act.

"Most of them felt so good that someone wanted to photograph them, pay attention to them," he says.

In several cases, Rogovin returned to the same subjects over and over again throughout the decades. Monica "Kiki" Cruz first came to Rogovin's attention as a little girl in 1972. In The Forgotten Ones, she recalls the first time he snapped her picture with her mother:

"I remember that day just like it was yesterday," Cruz says in the book. "I remember my mom was so excited -- she felt like a movie star because Milton was coming over."

That sense of validation, of finally being noticed, is shared by many of Rogovin's subjects. Jimmy Webster, who first encountered the photographer as a little boy in 1973, sums up the effect of Rogovin's work:

"Whenever you look at his photographs, you just see people for who they are," Webster says. "And we're all people, rich, poor, black, white. That's what you can learn from it."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Simon
Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.