Edgewood College Gallery Presents ‘Eye Witness: Milton Rogovin, Social Documentary Photography’

  • Friday, Jan 25, 2013

Madison, Wis. (Jan. 24, 2013) – The Edgewood College Gallery is pleased to present the third exhibition in the BMO Harris Bank Gallery Series at Edgewood College, Eye Witness: Milton Rogovin, Social Documentary Photography. This exhibition runs March 1 through April 1, 2013. A public reception is scheduled for Thursday, March 7, 4:00-7:00 pm, with a gallery lecture by Professor of Art History Melanie Herzog at 4:00 pm.

Milton Rogovin

Milton Rogovin (1909-2011) dedicated his life’s work - as an optometrist, a political activist, and a photographer - to enabling people to see more clearly. Born into a Russian Jewish immigrant family in New York City, he grew up in Harlem and Brooklyn and attended Columbia University. Radicalized by the widespread deprivations he witnessed during the Depression, he dedicated himself to working for social and economic justice. After military service during World War II, Rogovin began practice as an optometrist in Buffalo, New York. He and his wife Anne were politically active, engaging in union organizing and voter registration in Buffalo’s African-American community. In 1957 he was called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities and after refusing to testify was dubbed “Buffalo’s Number One Communist.” Much of his optometry clientele vanished, and with his increased free time he turned to photography as a way to speak about social inequities. Still, he maintained his optometry practice until he was nearly seventy years old.

Rogovin lived and worked in Buffalo for most of his life. For nearly fifty years he photographed working people and people living in poverty, people at work and at home, and people out of work. He always asked his subjects’ permission before making a photograph, and the people he photographed chose how they wished to be seen. While his focus is the human subject, he always paid attention to the details of their surroundings that reveal the impact of material conditions on people’s lived experience, and his photographs record these details with sharp precision. Rogovin termed the people he photographed “the forgotten ones,” people not often deemed worthy of photographic witness.

This exhibition features photographs from three bodies of work that Rogovin created over the course of several decades. His Lower West Side series is the result of his extended engagement with the six-blocks-square neighborhood in transition where his optometry office was located beginning in 1970. For three years he photographed the people of the Lower West Side on the streets, in their homes, and in the neighborhood’s churches, bars, and other places where people regularly gathered.

He returned to photograph many of the same neighborhood residents in 1984, 1992, and again in 2002. The resulting series – paired images, then “triptychs” and finally “quartets” - document the passage of time in people’s lives.

Rogovin began photographing steel workers during the 1970s, when steel was a major industry in and around Buffalo. The resulting series, Working People, pairs Rogovin’s photographs of these workers at work and at home. Photographs of women and men at work reveal the highly technical, sometimes dangerous, physically demanding labor of steel mill and foundry workers, and their pride in their labor. Paired with these workplace photographs, the images of these women and men at home offer a more complex and nuanced view of their lives. By the mid-1980s Buffalo’s steel industry was gone, and many of these workers were now out of work. Rogovin returned to photograph some of these individuals; the resulting photographs document the stark reality of deindustrialization.

In contrast to the focus of Working People on Buffalo’s steel workers, Family of Miners illuminates the work and lives of miners throughout the world. Milton and Anne Rogovin first traveled to Appalachia in 1962, and he began photographing coal miners and their families. They returned to the area throughout the 1960s and again in 1981, this time to photograph women miners at work and at home. Like women in the northern steel mills, women went to work in the coal mines when these jobs opened to them through the Equal Opportunity Commission mandates of the 1970s. In 1983 Rogovin received the prestigious W. Eugene Smith Grant for Humanistic Photography. Building upon their travels to France, Spain, and Scotland, where they were assisted by the local coal miners’ unions and people in the communities they visited, Milton and Anne decided to expand this body of work. The result was The Family of Miners, a series that Rogovin concluded in 1990 after photographing miners and their families in Appalachia, Mexico, Cuba, Scotland, France, Spain, Germany, the Czech Republic, China, and Zimbabwe.

In 1999 the Library of Congress became the repository for Rogovin’s negatives, contact sheets, and more than 1200 photographs, now archived as a national resource. He is the recipient of the Distinguished Achievement Award from the Arts and Sciences Division of the State University of New York at Buffalo (1994), the Citizen of Distinction Award from the City of Buffalo (1996), the New York State Governor’s Award (2000), and several honorary doctorates. In 2007 Rogovin received the Cornell Capa Award from the International Center of Photography in New York, and in 2010 The Center for Study of Working Class Life at New York’s Stony Brook University honored him with its Award for Lifetime Contributions to Social Justice for Working People. Rogovin’s photography has been featured in numerous exhibitions and is included in the permanent collections of museums and galleries throughout the world, including the International Center of Photography, Center for Creative Photography, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History and National Gallery of Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Modern Art, New York Historical Society, Art Institute of Chicago, J. Paul Getty Museum, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, New Orleans Museum of Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Cleveland Museum of Art, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Burchfield-Penney Art Center, and the Milwaukee Art Museum; and the National Galleries of Scotland in Edinburgh, Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, Fotografiska Museet in Stockholm, Sweden, and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Eye Witness: Milton Rogovin, Social Documentary Photography has been made possible with generous assistance from Mark Rogovin and The Rogovin Collection. This exhibition is presented as part of the Year of the Arts at Edgewood College, a celebration of music, theatre and art for 2012-2013. Supporters of Year of the Arts include the Kohler Foundation, BMO Harris Bank, the Madison Arts Commission, with additional funds from the Wisconsin Arts Board, DANE Arts with additional funds from the Pleasant T. Rowland Foundation, Native Capital Investment, and the Ahrens-Washburn Community Fellows Program. The School of Arts and Sciences at Edgewood College and the Marion H. Baker Fund for the Arts also provide support.