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Rogovin: A life portraying dignity

photo by Joyce Kryszak
Milton Rogovin at age 100 in his North Buffalo home

By Joyce Kryszak


Buffalo, NY – The documentary photographer known world-wide for his portrayals of the poor and disadvantaged has died. Milton Rogovin passed away early Tuesday at the age of 101.

"This is our child, our daughter, America, America...," read Rogovin.

Milton Rogovin read his poem that accompanied one of his photographs in 2009 on his 100th birthday. Even at that advanced age, Rogovin's voice was still full of the compassion - and the anger at social injustice - that fueled his work.

Today, Rogovin's work is housed in permanent museum collections all over the world, at the Library of Congress, permanent installations in Buffalo and used in school curriculums.

For nearly half a century, Rogovin and his wife Anne went into Buffalo's working class neighborhoods, mining communities and other places around the world to photograph those he called the forgotten ones.

In a 2001 interview with WBFO, Rogovin explained why. He said growing up in New York city during the Great Depression left a lasting impression.

"It changed my way of thinking. I could no longer be indifferent to the problems of people, especially those I called the forgotten ones," said Rogovin.

As an adult, Rogovin became an outspoken advocate for social justice. He and his wife Annie attended demonstrations in Washington, and were active in the Buffalo community working for civil rights for the rights of the poor.

But being outspoken about social causes during the late 1950's had consequences. Rogovin was called before the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities. In 2001, Rogovin talked about the event that changed his life.

"The vicious attacks against me in the newspaper nearly destroyed my optometric practice. It severely affected our children, my wife...So, it was a pretty sad thing. And essentially my political voice was silenced," said Rogovin.

But Rogovin soon found another way to get his message out. Rogovin told us that is when he turned in his optometrist lens for a camera lens.

Until her death in 2003, Rogovin and his wife Anne spent years in Buffalo's working class and minority communities creating dignified portraits of people as they really lived and worked.

But first they had to win their trust. In the 2001 interview with WBFO, the couple recalled those first tender steps.

"The first six months were very, very difficult for me, because they thought I was sent there by the FBI or the welfare office. But gradually as I gave each person a photograph...then they realized that I was their friend, not their enemy, they invited me, as well as my wife into their homes," said Milton Rogovin.

"It was a precious experience for us. They embraced us...You can not describe the pleasure we had from it knowing these people respected us and wanted us to be their friends forever," said Anne Rogovin.

And that affection continued through the decades. The Rogivins' son Mark Rogovin said at the time of his father's birthday in 2009 that they were still in contact with many of the people from the now famous photos. And he said his father was never forgotten by his fellow activists either.

Rogovin enjoyed a joyous celebration on his 100th birthday - and on December 30 when he turned 101 - with family and friends who came from near and far. Daughter Paula credits her mother, Anne with helping Milton live such a long life.

"My mother had very healthy food for him. She alwways said to my father, you have to live to 99. She said I order you, you have to live to 99...He showed her, he can do even better than 99," said Paula.

Rogovin died at the age of 101 in the Catham Avenue home he had shared with his wife Anne.