OCTOBER 20 – NOVEMBER 24, 2007.
Danziger Projects is proud to present the first large-scale gallery exhibition of Milton Rogovin's photographs to be seen in New York. Rogovin's prior New York shows were at the New York Historical Society in 2003 and ICP in 1976. Currently celebrating his 97th year, Rogovin was honored at this year's ICP Infinity Awards with the Cornell Capa Award for lifetime achievement.
Focusing on his three decade long series of portraits of Buffalo's Lower West Side, Danziger Projects' exhibition looks at Rogovin not just as the social documentarian he defines himself as, but as a photographer of profound vision and individuality. While Rogovin occasionally traveled, the cornerstone of his work lay in the streets of his hometown of Buffalo, New York, where for over three decades he not only took portraits, but recorded the changing lives of many of his subjects. The Buffalo work in its totality – from his early exploration of black storefront churches to his later domestic and street portraits - remains the heart and soul of his oeuvre.
Milton Rogovin was born in New York City in 1909. He graduated from Columbia University with a degree in optometry and a deep concern for workers' rights. In 1938 he moved to Buffalo where he established his own optometric practice. Four years later he married Anne Snetsky who, when not mothering their three children and working as a teacher, became Milton's full time collaborator and assistant.
In 1952, because of his activity in the local Communist Party, Rogovin was called before the House of Un-American Activities. The Buffalo Evening News immediately labeled him "Buffalo's Top Red" and the persecution that followed significantly impacted his business and his family. Rogovin later stated that though his voice had been silenced, he would not be. And so in 1958, Rogovin began making photographs that communicated his social concern. His first series was on Buffalo's black storefront churches and these images showed both the poverty and the spirit of their environment. Seen by W.E.B. Dubois, the pictures made their way to Minor White and were eventually published in Aperture Magazine in 1962.
In 1972, at the age of 63, Rogovin began to photograph Buffalo's Lower West Side. Turning up on streets ranging from blue collar family neighborhoods to places where it was dangerous to ask too many questions (the reason many of the pictures are un-named) Rogovin photographed indoors and outdoors, individuals and family groups, as he sought to convey the truth of the lives of his subjects and the environment which was just a short distance from his optometric office. Over three decades, he shot several thousand portraits.
In 1997, Rogovin developed severe cataracts in both eyes. Frustrated at his inability to take photographs, Rogovin closed his darkroom and sold his camera. In 1999, however, Rogovin underwent surgery, and remarkably his eyesight was restored. From December 2000 through December 2002, now in his 90s, Rogovin returned once more to the streets of the Lower West Side—where he was able in a few cases to complete a four decade progression.
Rogovin's photographs, while in many ways deceptively straightforward, reveal a personal style that up-ends the usual balance between a great photographer and the subject. While most masters of photography wittingly dominate the picture, in Rogovin's work the subject of each photograph commands equal strength. Whether because of his respect and empathy for his sitters or the sincerity of his humanism and politics, this seemingly simple concept re-addresses the delicate balance of power between the observer and the observed.
Because of the subtlety of his work, or perhaps his lack of interest in the mechanism of the art world, Rogovin has sometimes been seen as something of a worthy cause. However, it is our aim that this show makes one thing clear – that Milton Rogovin is one of America's pre-eminent photographers.
Rogovin's photographs are now in the permanent collections of over two dozen prominent museums including the Biblotheque Nationale in Paris, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the Center For Creative Photography at the University of Arizona-Tucson and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
In 1999, the Library of Congress acquired 1,130 of Rogovin's master prints, along with his negatives and contact sheets. The irony was not lost on Rogovin that the government that persecuted him in the 1950's now celebrated his work as a champion of the poor and working class half a century later.