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Famed Photographer Leaves Social-Activist Legacy for Son
Published on Monday, July 10, 2006 by the McClatchy Company Newspapers / Charlotte Observer (North Carolina)
Famed Photographer Leaves Social-Activist Legacy for Son
by Jim Rankin

Physically and psychically, Mark Rogovin lives in the shadow of the Old Left. Ask the Chicago artist and muralist for directions to his home and he inevitably sends you past a local landmark, the Forest Home Cemetery, with a strong suggestion that you go inside.

The cemetery is the final resting place for many American dissenters, including the Haymarket martyrs, who agitated for an eight-hour workday and paid for their campaign with their lives, and Emma Goldman, the anarchist and radical feminist.

Rogovin comes by his political sympathies honestly: His father is Milton Rogovin, an internationally acclaimed photographer of the working class whose Communist Party activities made him a pariah in the McCarthy era of the 1950s. "I'm a Red Diaper baby," explains Mark Rogovin, recalling his own youth in that era, when, much like the Haymarket agitators, people paid dearly, if not mortally, for their political views.

Milton Rogovin in his Buffalo, NY, darkroom in the late 1980s. Photo © by Mark Rogovin.
"It's bewildering to a child when playmates say: `We can't play with you any more,'" says Mark Rogovin, 59. He grew up in Buffalo, N.Y., where his father was the proprietor of a neighborhood optometry office. It was a nice practice, if not the kind of business that made you wealthy. But then money wasn't a priority with Milton Rogovin and his wife, Anne, a schoolteacher.

They were in for the long haul - the revolution that would eliminate distinctions of rich and poor. They weren't alone in that dream. It is estimated that a million Americans passed through the ranks of the Communist Party and various affiliates in the first half of the 20th century. Later those groups would be denounced as "commie fronts." But to their members, they were fraternal organizations, youth groups, even bowling leagues. The Old Left was a social life as well as a political cause.

Some people were drawn to the movement during the Great Depression of the 1930s, when the lines waiting at myriad soup kitchens seemed proof that capitalism was doomed. Others were recruited during World War II, when the Soviet Union was a U.S. ally bearing the brunt of the Nazi attack.

Many quickly left the party, disillusioned by the realization that Stalin's regime was no workers' paradise. Those who stayed with it found that, by the Cold War of the 1950s, their fellow citizens weren't willing to cut radicals the same slack as before.

The local press proclaimed Milton Rogovin "Buffalo's Number One Red."

The title was a bit grandiose. Mark Rogovin explains that his father (age 96 and still living in Buffalo) was merely the education director of the local Communist Party chapter. But the effect of the publicity was devastating when Milton Rogovin refused to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, a red-baiting congressional roadshow with subpoena power and media allies eager to share in the inquisition.

His eyeglass business was crippled. The family was shunned by neighbors.

Long a camera buff, Milton Rogovin turned to photography, using his unsolicited free time to take a long look at life through the lens of a Rolleiflex. He became adept enough that the Library of Congress is now the repository for his negatives, a rare distinction for a living photographer. In 2000, he was honored with the New York State Governor's Arts Award.

"You may wonder how an optometrist became a social-documentary photographer," Milton Rogovin said when accepting that award at New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art.

His son is devoted to leaving future generations an answer to that question. Mark Rogovin has helped archive memorabilia of his father and edit books of his photographs. One of these volumes was recently published by the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

Soon to arrive, the U.S. government assures Mark Rogovin, are 744 pages of FBI reports from agents who tailed his father, which the agency has had to cough up under the Freedom of Information Act.

Mark Rogovin has also been helping to edit an aesthetic biography of his father, which will be published jointly by the University of Washington Press and the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson.

As if warming up for the task, Mark Rogovin previously co-authored "The Day Will Come ..." a paperback guide to the history that underlies the gravestones of Forest Home Cemetery. It is a kind of prelude to his father's story, and, in a way, his own.

Mark Rogovin inherited his father's artistic bent and political orientation, if not in all the details. As a young man, he studied with the great Mexican muralist David Siqueiros, in whose homeland it is generally assumed an artist doubles as a social activist.

Later, in 1981, Mark Rogovin founded the Chicago Peace Museum with Marjorie Benton, former U.S. representative to UNICEF. He led the fight for a commemorative postage stamp for Paul Robeson, the great African-American singer-actor, scholar and balladeer-in-residence to leftist organizations of the `40s and `50s. A tribute from the U.S. Postal Service thanking him for his role in the issuance of that 37-cent stamp adorns one of Mark Rogovin's walls.

Other walls are hung with posters marking this or that political crusade. His file cabinets are stuffed with like-minded pamphlets, giving visitors the sensation of being absorbed into a living collage of radical causes, past and present.

"Right now I'm recirculating the buttons I designed protesting the first Iraq war," Mark Rogovin says.

The title of his guide to Forest Home cemetery comes from the words uttered by August Spies, one of the Haymarket martyrs, as he was about to be hanged from a Chicago gallows 120 years ago:

"The day will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you are throttling today."

Milton Rogovin told his audience at the Met, six years ago, "In the 1950s, when the federal government tried to silence those of us from organizing for the rights of working people, I refused to be silenced. I turned to social-documentary photography as my way of speaking out."

He was consciously following in the path of Jacob Riis, a muckraker, pioneering photojournalist and reformer who hoped his photographs would draw attention to deplorable conditions in the tenements of the early 20th century, and Walker Evans, who recorded rural poverty in Appalachia 30 years later.

Milton Rogovin initially took his camera to the storefront churches of Buffalo's ghettos. Just like his predecessors, whose work he discovered in the leftist press of his youth, Rogovin shot in black and white, which gives his photographs a haunting quality, at once stark, majestic and immune to time. To contemporary eyes, otherwise bombarded with color, those monochromatic images reinforce Milton Rogovin's message: These are "the forgotten ones." A favorite phrase of his, it is the title of an earlier book of his photographs.

Milton Rogovin is not up to being interviewed. Fortunately, he was extensively tape-recorded for Mark Rogovin's forthcoming biography. In one of those sessions, he recalled some lines from a favorite poem, "A Worker Reads History," by Bertolt Brecht of "Three Penny Opera" fame:

Who built the Seven Gates of Thebes?

The books are filled with the names of kings.

Was it kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone?

Early on, Milton Rogovin made the decision to edit the story he was telling. A frequent sight on the streets of Buffalo's impoverished Lower West Side was someone sleeping off a drinking bout. But he turned his camera away.

"My idea was that if I couldn't show a rich, white guy drunk somewhere, I'd better not show this poor bastard drunk," Milton Rogovin said in an interview a few years ago with Cheryl A. Brutvan of Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. "To add to their misery, what's the sense?"

He also was anxious to avoid giving an impression he was slumming - a visitor from a more affluent part of the world taking an exotic pleasure in the company of the less-fortunate. For a while, he worked with a Hasselblad, a virtual Rolls-Royce among cameras of the day. But when the look in his subjects' eyes said that they could guess the price tag, he returned to the more pedestrian Rolleiflex. Both cameras, though, are designed to be held at waist level and aimed by looking down into a viewfinder.

He feels strongly that holding a camera to your eye while pointing it at someone issues him or her a command to smile. He wanted his subjects to feel they had a choice of how they wanted to look.

Over the decades, that simple technique captured unforgettable expressions of joy and pain, hope and resignation, on faces around the world. Milton Rogovin photographed workers and their families in Europe, Asia, South Africa and Latin America. He documented the lives of miners on virtually every continent. Something about the danger of going down into the earth to make a living makes them open up more to strangers than other laborers, he found.

He also returned to Buffalo in the 1970s, `80s and `90s, each time seeking to rephotograph members of the same families over several decades. In his book "Triptychs," the young boy or girl in one photo becomes a teenager in the next and a parent in the third, all three photos arranged side by side. To track down his subjects, he and his wife would take earlier pictures to a neighborhood gathering place, which was not always a happy experience.

"People would gather around me and I would show them photographs, one at a time," he recalled. "And they would tell me, `Oh, this guy OD'd, and that woman is in jail, and this guy lives around the corner on Prospect.'"

Milton Rogovin's photos have made his name celebrated in artistic circles. His work hangs in prestigious museums, and universities have given him honorary degrees. Four decades after he was a pariah in his hometown, Buffalo gave him a Citizen of Distinction Award.

But as his street-corner show-and-tell sessions demonstrate, his subjects' stories haven't always had a happy ending. Even those who managed to escape drugs or prison are sometimes still rooted to mean streets their parents knew. Graffitied walls run through some of his triptychs, an intergenerational visual constant.

But Milton Rogovin is not one to give up the struggle. One of Mark Rogovin's favorite photos is not by, but of, his father. It shows him in a wheelchair at a protest demonstration a year ago. He is holding a sign reading: "FUND HEALTHCARE, NOT WARFARE."

Beyond that, Milton Rogovin hopes that his work has given a few subjects, at least momentarily, a sense that a meaningful life is not a monopoly of the middle class. He recalls that often, during his and his late wife's photographic excursions, a few lines from Thomas Gray's "Elegy in a Country Churchyard" occurred to them:

Full many a flower is born to blush unseen

And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

Milton Rogovin's photographs have helped a few people escape that fate, notes Dave Isay, an audio documentary maker who accompanied Milton Rogovin and his wife on their final rounds of Buffalo's slums five or six years ago.

"At some point we would pull out the old portraits - from 30 years ago, 20, 10," Isay says. "It's difficult to describe the intensity of emotions those photographs would unleash in their subjects. Most would just stare at them and then begin to sob."

© 2006 KRT Wire and wire service sources


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