Review: Milton Rogovin: The Making of a Social Documentary Photographer


Book Reviews, Photobooks

Milton Rogovin is one of those underappreciated photographers. His work could maybe be termed the photographic equivalent of Studs Terkel’s radio shows: Rogovin took photos of people who worked hard for their money and who often were very poor. Originally an optometrist with an interest in photography, in 1957 he was summoned before one of the House Committees on Un-American Activities, named “Buffalo’s No. 1 Communist.” Rogovin refused to give anything but his name and occupation, later noting how “a few of our former ‘friends’ […] testified against us in closed sessions.” Subsequently, most of his business withered away, and the family survived on his wife Anne’s salary (who had had to take a teaching job in the suburbs following her own refusal to sign Buffalo’s ‘Loyalty Oath’ for their school system). With his business mostly gone, Rogovin started to focus on photography.

This story - and the development of his photography - is wonderfully brought to life in Milton Rogovin: The Making of a Social Documentary Photographer. The book relies heavily on Rogovin’s own - very unpretentious - words and chronicles his life and (com)passion (in this photographer’s case, the passion for photography comes with an intense compassion for the subjects in the photos), presenting the different bodies of work he was working on for many decades.

For example, for many years, the family drove down to Appalachia so Rogovin could take photos there, of the workers and the families. They would sleep in their station wagon. In fact, Rogovin used to rely a lot on his wife, who opened many doors for him and whose influence can be clearly seen in his work. One might be tempted to call his work a collaborative effort with her.

Rogovin is first and foremost a portrait photographer, despite what people might see as a political focus. His portraiture is breathtaking, and reading his words not only brings them even more to life, but also allows a glimpse into the mind of a master photographer. Even if you just wanted to get Milton Rogovin: The Making of a Social Documentary Photographer for the portraits and their story and making, that would be more than worth your money.

But Milton Rogovin: The Making of a Social Documentary Photographer is also a testament to intense photographic dedication, something that we didn’t and don’t see all that often - neither back then, nor now. You truly have to believe in something to spend your Summers in the back of a station wagon to take photos of people who you think deserve better.